Bearded Vultures are the bone crushers of the clean-up crew that fly in and remove all traces of dead bodies, either animal or human. Adult birds dye their feathers blood red, giving them the reputation of one of the most metal birds in the animal kingdom. These magnificent large birds which can live to 48 years old, once soared over much of the Eurasian landmass and Africa but they are now in crisis.
Bearded Vultures have no natural predators except man. Vultures are being poisoned by illegal poachers who do not want vultures to alert Park Rangers to poached elephant and rhino carcasses, by their circling overhead as sentinels. Bearded Vultures are also being killed by farmers who lay out illegally poisoned carcasses or set steel-jawed “gin traps” which snap onto the bird’s leg. Both methods leave the vulture (and any other animal), to die very painfully.
In southern Africa the Maloti-Drakensberg mountain range is home to the only remaining population of southern African Bearded Vultures. Due to ongoing threats causing high death tolls, the 2014 population has been depleted to a critical level of just 350 birds.
Probably no other raptor, [Lammergeier] has made such a deep impression on people, as evidenced by the numerous fables and legends concerning it. Enormous wings enable it to soar with characteristic ease above the mountain slopes, while the outline of its long, diamond-shaped tail is unmistakeable in flight. The bristles at the base of the beak form the distinctive appearance of a beard.
The Bone Diet
80% of the Bearded Vulture’s diet consists of bone and bone marrow and eating bones is the raptor’s favorite food above everything else, but it takes seven years for the bird to learn how to smash the bones effectively, from a great height. Its stomach acid has a pH of about 1, so the dense material can be digested in under 24 hours, consequently the Bearded Vulture has access to a food source that is mostly untapped by the other scavengers.
Eating bones also allows the vulture to have a food source even in a period of food scarcity. When a carcass is seemingly so decomposed that there is nothing edible left, the bones remain. In both summer and winter, there are more bones available than there is meat. They can carry bones as heavy as their own body weight.
The bones contain nutritious marrow, which provides especially good benefits during the colder months when food is even harder to find. It has been observed Bearded Vultures sometimes adopt a wider variety of prey items during the summer, but rely on the bones during the winter.\
The Bearded Vulture is a scavenger, so after finding a picked-over carcass, they will sometimes carry the remains up in the air 50-80 (165-265 ft.) and drop it from a tremendous height to shatter it into swallow-able pieces. They even have favorite breaking spots that are ominously called ossuaries. Besides bones, they also eat small lizards and turtles; usually only in the summer months.
Bearded Vultures sometimes carry the remains up in the air 50-80 (165-265 ft.) and drops them on hard surfaces to get to the bone marrow which is highly nutritious.
They rely mostly on sight rather than smell, as they glide at high altitudes toward their target. They can grow up to 1.2 meters (4 foot) tall and usually weigh between 5 – 7 kg (10 and 15 lb.) They are rarely sen to flap their enormous wings, which span 2.7 meters (8.9 ft.) They are mostly a carrion bird, hunting or scavenging over large areas and generally waits for other scavengers to finish their feast and once gone, swops down and collects the much desired prize.
The majority of the population, between 1,300 to 6,700 individuals live in the Himalayas, Turkey and India with some smaller populations in the Middle East and Eastern Africa with only rare sightings in Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and the Czech Republic. Because they mate in pairs, control a large territory and are not willing to share it with other mature individuals of the species, adding here the disappearance of food resources, the distribution and contact between mating partners is sparse and the population is in slow decline.
Although Bearded Vultures can live up to 45 years old in captivity, the average lifespan of a wild bird is 21.4 years.
Status Symbol: How To Look More Intimidating
Bearded vultures come in various shades, from pure white to orange-red. Soils stained with iron oxide give the birds their fiery appearance. Bearded Vultures apply the dirt with their claws and then preen for about an hour to ensure a bright orange glow. They are also attracted to other red things, like leaves and red wood. Captive birds also partake in this behavior, which suggests the activity is instinctual, not learned.
Scientists have noticed that the birds’ age and size are directly correlated to the intensity of color. It is theorized that the orange hue is a status symbol. More soiled feathers indicates that the Bearded Vulture had the time and resources to find an adequate place to bathe; the brightest-colored vultures should have the most territory and knowledge of their surroundings. Interestingly, these baths are done in secret, so most of the information gathered has been through spying on captive birds.
Dazzling Courtship Displays and Breeding
Bearded Vultures are most commonly monogamous, with each pair commanding a large territory within which a nest is built on an accessible crag, a rocky ledge, or in a smallish cave. During the breeding season, which is once a year but varies in timing geographically, courting pairs perform spectacular displays, swooping and soaring together, and occasionally interlocking their talons and spiraling downwards almost to the ground.
The nest is made from a massive pile of branches lined with wool, dung, dried skin and sometimes even rubbish. One to two eggs are normally laid in each clutch and incubated for around 53 to 60 days before hatching. The chicks fledge after 100 to 130 days but remain dependent on the parent birds for up to a year. Young birds are known to wander widely, but adults are normally resident within huge home ranges.
The Bearded Vulture is mostly found above 1,000 meters, where they defend huge territories in which the pair feeds and breeds. The territory size is about 200-400 km2 and therefore the distribution of the species is rather sparse. Some individuals on Mount Everest have been recorded at an impressive 7,500 meters above sea level.
Bearded Vultures As ‘Pets’ – Not For The Inexperienced!
Some people describe Bearded Vultures or Lammergeiers, as the closest thing to an actual dragon they have ever seen. In a relationship which requires an enormous amount of mutual respect, the following man has a close bond with raptors, which would be envied by many. Prior to taking on a Bearded Vulture, he already had close bonds with a Golden Eagle and a Bald Faced Eagle.
In other words, he knew what he was doing to ensure the safety and well being of the birds, both physically and mentally. He flies his birds in freedom every day, making sure they retain being a raptor first and above everything else.
Even for an experienced raptor handler, the Bearded Vulture tested this man’s nerve, as can be seen in the video. Fortunately, the Bearded Vulture and the man went on to develop a mutual-bond relationship that was successful, as can be seen as the raptor preens the man. But this is an exception. The Bearded Vulture is not recommended as “pet.”
Threats Which Have Put The Bearded Vulture In Crisis
With the southern African population of Bearded Vultures depleted to a critical level of just 350 birds in 2014, Maloti-Drakensberg Vulture project instigated an extensive Bearded Vulture monitoring program, continually tracking individual birds via satellite transmitter units. Sadly, the impact of the ongoing threats facing the vulture species of Southern Africa has been reflected in the results of the Bearded Vulture satellite monitoring program.
Since the beginning of the program in 2006, there have been 25 Bearded Vultures fitted with satellite monitoring units. 10 of these birds have been killed by poisoning or collisions. That’s a shocking 40% of the birds included in the project!
Poisoning accounted for the death of 1440 of the project’s vultures in southern Africa in 2013. When you consider that one of those species has a population of just 350 birds, the crisis is urgent.
Because Bearded Vultures are solitary animals and prefer not to feed alongside other scavengers, but rather carry meat away and eat it in safe privacy, it is easy for farmers to illegally lace dead animal carcasses with poison to deliberately kill off scavenger animals, included vultures. The poisons induce a painful death as paralysis sets into the breathing muscles resulting in suffocation.
Historically, the bearded vulture was feared and it was believed they attacked lambs and even young children. Concerned parents hunted the birds and the vultures were completely eradicated As a result, they were hunted and eventually eradicated in the Alps. Bearded Vultures were also completely eradicated from most areas in Eastern Europe by the 1990s.
The main threats for the species today include lack of food, illegal use of poisoned baits set for “vermin” such as wolves, foxes, jackals and crows, habitat destruction and degradation, and illegal persecution. Other reasons for the decrease of the population were lack of food due to habitat degradation or loss because of changes in the land use. Disturbance may be another significant factor.
Today the Bearded Vulture occurs in low densities and is considered to be uncommon or rare across significant parts of its range. Furthermore, most populations appear to be declining due to a range of factors including hunting, poisoning, habitat degradation and disturbance.
Bearded Vulture Conservation
At the global level, the Bearded Vulture’s rate of decline is not currently thought to be sufficiently rapid, or the population size sufficiently small, for this species to warrant classification under a threatened category on the IUCN Red List. However, because the lammergeier is extremely vulnerable in some regions such as Europe and Southern Africa, there are a several conservation projects being undertaken for this species.
in 2008 the first hand rearing of a Bearded Vulture in human isolation took place, with the goal of releasing the eventually fully reared raptor into the wild. This technique has been used before with success in species with similar ecology such as the Californian Condor and the Andean Condor in Argentina, but never with the Bearded Vulture.To read more: click here.
In a separate article I will look at the role vultures play in what is known as sky burials, which are not physical burials, but rather the act of leaving a corpse to the elements. Only a few different cultures do it, and for different reasons and in different ways.
The majestic lammergeier, known as the Bearded Vulture, is too precious to let slip from our planet. It plays an important part in the ecological system where it resides in the harsh mountainous regions. I have flown over the Himalayas in a small plane and flown to the summit of Mount Everest and although it is utterly breathtaking, it would take a special animal to survive such uninhabitable conditions, yet the Bearded Vulture is able to do it.
With no other predators to destroy the bird, it is pitiful that we as a human race decimate such important animals because we “misunderstand” their role and their way of living. Pushed to the brink of extermination in Europe and parts of the Alps, we must do all we can to build up the Bearded Vultures numbers before it is too late to reverse the damage. As we have stated so many times: “once they are gone they are gone forever.”
You can help by raising awareness for the Bearded Vulture through sharing this article on social networking services and supporting organizations such as Project Vulture, located in southern Africa.
To read more: http://projectvulture.org.za/
Thank you for reading,
(Photo not credited to Rescuer’s Heart For Animals)
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