Creature Feature: The Bearded Vulture

a bearded vulture

Yes, I know, I’ve already written about vultures here. But I wanted to give a shoutout to my favourite bird of all time: the lammergeier, or bearded vulture! 

This massive bird of prey with a 7-9ft wingspan lives in mountainous regions such as Africa, southern Europe and Tibet. Lammergeiers are Old World vultures, which means that they rely on sight to hunt and unlike most New World vultures, their heads are feathered. In fact, lammergeiers more closely resemble large falcons than the vultures we’re typically familiar with. Their tail is longer than their wings, and their necks are heavily feathered (which is where the ‘bearded’ part of their name comes from). 

a bearded vulture in flight
A bearded vulture in flight

Their feathers, like most species of birds, play a large part in their social lives. Lammergeiers bathe in dust to give their feathers a rust-red hue, which is believed to factor into their hierarchy; the more impressive your plumage is, the higher up you are on the social ladder. Just like humans wearing makeup, every vulture will have a different ‘look’: some feathers are more orange or pink, and the amount of colour on their feathers will differ. This fun cosmetic detail paired with their beard-like bristles and red-rimmed eyes gives them a lot in common with vampires, which might be why they’re my favourite bird!

Two bearded vultures: one with plain off-white feathers, the other with red-stained feathers
Variations in feather colouring

Speaking of vampires, the lammergeier also has unusual eating habits. The bearded vulture’s diet is made up of about 90% bone marrow! This scavenger will often find bones from already dead animals on the ground, but it has been known to kill its own prey more often than most vultures. The word “lammergeier” is German for “lamb stealer”, because it was believed they carried off lambs, but their older name, ossifrage, means “bone eater”. The lammergeier’s method of eating involves dropping large bones from the sky until they break into bite-sized fragments, a technique that can take 7 years to learn. 

One of their favourite meals is tortoise. A Greek poet named Aeschylus was allegedly killed when a lammergeier mistook his bald head for a rock, and dropped a tortoise on him. 

A bearded vulture sitting atop a sheep carcass
A bearded vulture prepares to dig into its next meal

A lammergeier’s mating dance is a death-defying feat of air acrobatics. The pair fly in spirals, displaying their talons and wings. In an incredibly risky move, they lock claws together and plummet towards the ground. Timing is crucial, because if they don’t pull up quickly enough they will crash and die. 

Lammergeiers raise their young in a cave for about two years, with the parents alternating time in and out of the nest. Bearded vultures in the wild live around 21 years, but in captivity, they’ve lived to 45. 

So, these vultures eat bones, colour their feathers red, live in caves, and show their love through a thrill-seeking adventure that could easily end in death. In my opinion, they’re the most Goth of all birds (yes – I’m putting them above ravens). For all these reasons and more, they’re my favourite bird! If you want to hear more about vultures in general, check out my post Ode to Vultures!

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