Day 32 of 100 Days of Blogging

In keeping with this week-end’s Halloween theme, today’s contender for Coolest Bird of the Week is the bone crunching Bearded Vulture!

Coolest Bird of the Week #5

Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

#1. The Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is a bird of prey and the only bird to specialize in eating bones. Its diet consists of 85–90% bone marrow. Like vultures in general, it performs an important job, cleaning up the ecosystem of rotting carcasses and thereby helping to reduce diseases for other predators. 

#2. As vultures go, this one is quite attractive. Most vultures don’t have feathers on their heads so that they can stick them into carcasses but avoid all the bacteria that comes with that. The Bearded Vulture, on the other hand, has beautiful reddish yellow or white plumage on the head; a benefit of specializing in bones and not having to stick your head inside any messy cavities! The reddish colour on the feathers actually comes from rubbing themselves in dirt that contains ferric oxides.

#3. The Bearded Vulture is found in the high, rugged mountains of southern Europe, Africa and Asia. This bird requires an enormous territory, about 200-400 km2, in which to breed and forage and so it is greatly affected by any habitat loss.

#4. Two centuries ago this vulture was commonly seen in the mountains across southern Europe from Western Spain to the Balkans. Today the Bearded Vulture is the rarest Vulture in Europe. The total combined population of Europe, Turkey and Russia is estimated to be from 600 to 1000 breeding pairs.

#5. The Bearded Vulture swallows bones as large 25cm (10 in.) long and 3.5 cm (1¼ in) wide. It can even carry very large bones almost equal to its own weight. In order to be able to deal with these really big delicacies, it uses its talons to carry them high into the air, then drops them from a height of 50–150 m (160–490 ft) above ground onto areas of flat rock, called ossuaries. If the bones don’t shatter on the first try, birds have been observed performing this task over and over until the shards are in edible sized pieces. This isn’t as easy as it sounds though! Young birds take 7 years to perfect this skill.

#6. The bone marrow diet of the Bearded Vulture means that it doesn’t have to compete with other animals for the carcass, as is the case with meat eaters. The skeleton dehydrates, which protects it from bacterial degradation, and can be consumed months after a kill. The bird can return time after time to the source without having to drag away and stash its food either. Its powerful stomach acids will breakdown the bones in about 24 hours. It will also eat a small quantity of live prey and is reported to use its drop-and-smash technique on turtles.

#7. Habitat loss is only one of the causes of population decreases in this species. Another is the adverse effects of the veterinary drug diclofenac, which has affected Vulture populations in general. On the Indian sub-continent the drug’s use in veterinary medicine is banned, but in Europe this is not yet the case.

#8. Bearded Vultures only breed in alternate years since chicks require care for up to 2 years. They breed in winter when carcasses are more readily available due to the harsh mountainous climate it inhabits. Chicks hatch in February.

#9. The Bearded Vulture, like other Old World Vultures, depends on sight to find its food. This is in contrast to many New World vultures that have a highly developed sense of smell.

#10. Historically, the Bearded Vulture was feared and (wrongly) blamed for attacking domestic animals, especially lambs, and even carrying off young children. As a result, they were hunted to extirpation in the Alps, where the last live specimen was shot in 1913. However, thanks to a recent re-introduction program, about 20 pairs now breed there.