Bearded vulture

The bearded vulture is the Alps' largest bird and is one of the rarest raptors in Europe. It nests on high rock ledges and inhabits exclusively high mountainous areas.

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Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus).
© WWF-Canon / Martin Harvey

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Key Facts

  • Common Names

    Lammergeier, bearded vulture, lammergeyer

  • Scientific Name

    Gypaetus barbatus

  • Status

    Least concern

    IUCN

  • Estimated Global Population

    2,000-10,000

Bearded vultures were once found in almost all mountain ranges of southern Europe and the Alps.
Probably no other raptor has made such a deep impression on people, as evidenced  by the numerous fables and legends concerning it.

Physical Description
Bearded vultures have reddish yellow or white plumage on the head and breast with a grey black tail and wings. In the adult individual the black strip over the eyes and the bristles at the base of the beak form the distinctive appearance of a beard.

Size
Height: 1.15m
Wingspan: 2.7m
Weight: 5-7kg

Ecology & Habitat
The Bearded vulture defends huge territories in which the pair feeds and breeds. A pair are unlikely to tolerate the presence of other mature individuals of the species in their territory. The territory size is about 200-400 km2 and therefore the distribution of the species is rather sparse.

Life Cycle
The bearded vulture is monogamous. In Europe, it forms a pair between November and December and eggs are laid between December and February. They usually lay two eggs, but the 2nd egg, which is smaller, is a form of biological insurance and the chick is usually killed by its older sibling in the first weeks after hatching.

Diet
The bearded vulture is the only animal that feeds almost exclusively on bone (70-90%). In Crete, it is known as the "bone-eater". The bird throws the larger bones from a height on to rocky slopes in order to break them, and immediately descends after them in a characteristic spiral.

If the bone does not break the first time, the method is repeated many times until the bone finally breaks. The bird then eats the bone pieces starting with the bone marrow. The smaller bones are swallowed whole, as the bird's gastric fluids are so strong that they can digest bone easily. This dietary habit seems odd, but once bones have been digested, they are a nutritious and easily storable type of food; in addition, the bird faces minimal competition for this type of food.

Population & Distribution
Approximately 100 breeding pairs exist in Europe today, mostly in the Pyrenees between France and Spain; on the Island of Corsica, on the Greek island of Crete and mailand Greece. It has also been reintroduced in the European Alps through a captive breeding programme.

Threats
Historically, the bearded vulture was feared and it was believed they attacked lambs and even young children. As a result, they were hunted and eventually eradicated in the Alps.

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.
Major habitat type
High mountains and open ranges

Range States
(Alpine) France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Germany

Geographical Location
Mountainous regions of Africa, Southern Europe and Asia

Ecological Region
European Alps, Mediterranean

This profile has been reviewed by Doris Calegari, European Alpine Programme, WWF-Switzerland office.

What is WWF doing?

WWF supports the protection of bearded vultures throughout their range and focuses specific effort on the protection and conservation of the Alps as a priority region. WWF has also supported the programme to reintroduce bearded vultures to the Alps.

A close shave for Switzerland's bearded vulture

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    Did you know?

      • The name of the Lammergeier originates from German, meaning "lamb-vulture".
      • This raptor will often drop bones from a great height in order to crack them open and gain access the bone marrow inside - hence its old name of Ossifrage (or Bone Crusher).
      • The reddish plumage on the neck and under parts are derived from iron oxide which the birds rub into themselves.

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