Beak of the Week: Bearded Vulture

I was soooo close to finishing and publishing my last South Africa post, recounting our final, and most exciting, adventure of the trip….our drive up the Sani Pass to Lesotho. In writing this post, it quickly became abundantly clear that the Bearded Vulture deserves its very own post. So, here it is….my second “Beak of the Week” post, dedicated to one of the most awe-inspiring birds I have ever encountered: the Bearded Vulture, a.k.a. Lammergeier.

First, I think that vultures are one of the most fascinating yet under-appreciated groups of birds. The ecosystem services that they provide are incomparable, yet their populations are declining globally at an alarming rate. I could go on but, instead, I suggest you read Katie Fallon’s compelling book, “Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird”. I was quite excited at the prospect of encountering a diverse and abundant vulture population in South Africa, and was disappointed to discover that they are not nearly as commonplace as I assumed (I mean, really, with all of those large mammalian herbivores..?!?! The skies should be filled with vultures). Their decline is multifaceted, but is due, in large part, to the intentional poisoning of carcasses by poachers who have figured that their locations will be quickly revealed by vultures picking up the scent of a fresh kill. Uggghhhh. This reality makes it even more meaningful to encounter a Bearded Vulture.

I first learned about Bearded Vultures from David Attenborough in “The Life of Birds”. Long before I became a bit obsessed with birds, in general, I was fascinated with his narration of these incredible creatures, and the compelling footage that accompanied his tales. At the time, I don’t think I even paused to consider that I might one day see these animals in the wild….so you can imagine how this sighting made my heart skip a beat. Before I proceed with my story, here are a few things you need to know about Bearded Vultures:

    1. They are huge. They are up to 4′ tall, with a wingspan of 7.6 – 9.3′. Compare that with our California Condor….the largest North American land bird with a 9′ wingspan.
    2. They are the only animal known to subsist almost entirely on bone. Eighty percent of their diet consists of bone and bone marrow. They maintain a stomach pH of ~1, and so are able to digest this material relatively quickly. Unlike most vultures, they will occasionally hunt live prey – most notably, tortoises that are often dropped from large heights to break their shells.
    3. They have developed an effective bone-eating strategy. They typically wait until a carcass has been picked clean (thanks to other vulture species). Only then do they swoop in, grab some bones, and fly high to drop the bones from a dizzying heights. This practice shatters the bone into bite-size pieces.
    4. They live and breed on crags in high mountains of Europe, Africa, the Caucasus, the Indian subcontinent, and Tibet. They are seldom found below 1000 m above sea level. In South Africa, they are only found in the Drakensberg Mountain range.
    5. Bearded Vultures range in color from pure white to orange-red and instinctively apply dirt (especially soils stained with iron oxide) with their claws, adding to their “fiery” appearance. Some studies suggest that the intensity of their color is correlated with the birds’ age and size and so may function as a status symbol.
    6. These birds are monogamous and breed once a year. They have a mean lifespan of 21.5 years, but may live up to 45 years in captivity.
    7. Unlike most vultures, the Bearded Vulture does not have a bald head.
    8. Several factors have contributed to this vulture’s decline. Lammergeir means “lamb-vulture” in German, due to its reputation of carrying away lambs, calves, and even children. Ummm, not so. They are not known to be hostile toward humans (or lambs for that matter) but apparently this idea contributed to the hunting of these birds to the brink of extinction — they were almost completely eradicated from most areas in Eastern Europe by the 1990s. Thanks to their broad habitat range, and the efforts of environmentalists, their populations have notably increased. However, this “near-threatened” species is still in peril due to poisoning, reduced food supply, habitat destruction, and trophy hunting. In South Africa, their range was historically broader, but they are now restricted to the highlands of Lesotho and adjacent areas of the Drakensberg Mountains.

We first spotted this bird soaring near some cliffs at one of the higher altitude stops we made in Lesotho. Certainly, its size was immediately striking, but from the distance at which we were observing it, that was about all that stood out. I was happy to have seen one, but didn’t feel super satisfied with the look we had. But I quickly reminded myself that we were lucky to see it at all….its appearance in this region is certainly not guaranteed, and this bird is now classified as “endangered” in the Southern African Red Data Book.

We hopped back in the vehicle to start to make our way down the mountain, with an eye out for some of the target birds we missed on our way up. Not long after, our guide slammed the brakes and pulled off to the side of the road, yelling, “LAMMERGEIER”! I was prepared this time….I jumped out of the car with camera in hand and just started to shoot. I think I took ~100 photos in the brief few moments that this impressive bird soared overhead and then quickly took off. I was ecstatic to be able to capture the photos I did. This trip has been chock full of so many “firsts” and “favorites”, but I don’t hesitate to say that this was definitely one of my favorite moments, and certainly one that I will never forget.

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