|Population||2,000-10,000 (2015 est.)|
|Conservation status||Near threatened|
The lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), also called the bearded vulture or ossifrage, is a bird of prey from the family Accipitridae. Traditionally, he belonged to the subfamily of Old World vultures (Aegypiinae) before genetic investigations with the Egyptian vulture and the Palm-nut vulture caused it to be placed into his own subfamily (Gypaetinae).
The name originally came from the German words lämmers + geier, which literally meant "lamb's vulture", in reference to attacks on lambs in the central Alps, a belief which has been largely discounted. The older word ossifrage is based on Latin for "bone-breaker" (oss, "bone" + frangere, "to break"), which was used in Leviticus 11:13 to identify this bird specifically, as well as prohibit the ancient Israelites from eating this or any other bird of prey.
Lammergeiers are one of the largest flying birds in Europe. Their wingspan is 7.6–9.3 feet, their body length 37–49 inches, their body weight is 9.9–17.2 pounds. Females are slightly larger than males. Adult vultures have a contrasting body plumage, with the top grayish-black, and the head, neck, and lower body white to rusty; the lammergeier is the only vulture to have a fully-feathered head and neck. A single stripe of black feathers runs forward from the eye on either side of the face, curving down to meet bristle-like black feathers hanging from the beak, giving the bird the name "bearded vulture". Young bearded vultures are predominantly gray-black, after five to seven years the species wears the adult plumage.
The eyes are surrounded by a red scleral ring; The intensity of the red reflects the mood of the bird. The more excited it is, the more luminous is this scleral ring. The iris of the eyes is yellow.
The lammergeier has long, relatively narrow wings, which are clearly pointed towards the end, and which are kept hanging downwards while gliding, giving the appearance of a large falcon while in flight. The tail is long and wedge-shaped.
The lammergeier today has a disjointed range. It is found in Africa as well as in the Spanish and French Pyrenees, some mountainous regions of southern Europe, also in the Taurus mountains, in the mountains of southwestern and central Asia, Mongolia and Central China. Within this large distribution area two subspecies are described:
- Gypaetus barbatus barbatus
- Southern Europe, northwest Africa, central and northeast China
- Gypaetus barbatus meridionalis
- Eastern and southern Africa, southern Arabian Peninsula
Typical habitats of the lammergeier are alpine and montane mountain regions above the tree line. They are characterized by large differences in altitude, steep rock faces, good thermals and winds. They must also contain inaccessible rocky areas which are necessary for breeding. It is also important that there is a population of predators such as wolves and lynxes as well as large birds of prey like eagles in its habitat.
The high-altitude regions in which the lammergeier resides corresponds in Europe to altitudes between 4,500 and 9000 feet. In the Himalayas they reach up to 23,000 feet. In Ethiopia, on the other hand, the lammergeier can be observed at altitudes of 900 feet above sea level.
The area normally occupied by family groups or couples is between 62 and 250 square miles. During the winter season, the food search area will become larger. Lammergeiers are not territorial; within their area they are only aggressive against their own kind or other birds of prey behave only in the immediate vicinity of their nest. Lammergeiers are perennial birds that remain in their breeding grounds all year round.
80% of its diet consists of bones and bone marrow. Young chicks are still dependent on muscle flesh, but the adults can feed almost exclusively on bones, eating between 8.8 and 14 ounces of bone daily. Small bones are generally swallowed (the birds have a large mouth gape), but larger ones are taken to the air to be dropped on rocks below, enabling the bird to consume the broken pieces with ease. With this specialization on bones, the lammergeier has a food source not claimed by any other animal. Bones contain an average of 12% protein, 16% fat, and 23% mineral, but because of the low water content of the bones they drink water frequently, and are dependent on fresh water sources or snow within their habitat.
If a lammergeier detects a carcass, it will circle over it for a while. When it lands, it does so at a distance from the carcass and approaches it on foot; it will wait until all other predators have finished with it before moving on it. Items not eaten are taken to be placed in caches at resting and sleeping places. Digestion is aided by a vigorous gastric acid which quickly dissolve the bones
Live animals are also killed and eaten - more so than any other vulture - and they are usually killed in the same manner as with the bones. Small mammals, birds, and reptiles are part of the diet; turtles as well, especially around the Mediterranean, where they are dropped to break the shells. It was said that the Greek playwright Aeschylus died about 455 BC, killed when a tortoise was dropped on his head by a lammergeier.
In Africa, it has also been observed eating the birth placenta of game and farm animals, as well as human refuse.
Lammergeiers are skiled, maneuverable aviators, which they also show during their courtship play. The courtship game consists of chases between the partners, loops, flies on the back, where the birds occasionally catch each other's feet and whirl together almost to the ground. This changes with flight phases, in which they fly completely synchronously at a distance of a few meters.
Lammergeiers often build massive nests in inaccessible rocky mountains, beginning in autumn. The nests are used again and again by the lammergeiers living in solid partnerships. Older nestss can reach a size of about six square feet. The nests is also padded with feathers and animal hair, rags and paper.
The eggs are laid in late December or January, when there is a special harsh weather in their favorite habitats. Lammergeiers usually lay two eggs, the second egg following about a week after the first. The incubation period is 52 to 58 days. The second hatching young bird is usually not in a position to assert itself against the older bird in the fight for the feed, and dies by neglect within a few days. In rare exceptional cases, the older juvenile even kills its weaker sibling. The nesting time is 110 to 120 days. Lammergeiers reach sexual maturity at 5–7 years.
Lammergeiers were once classified as "least concern" in the IUCN Red List, due to the extremely large range the bird has in Eurasia and Africa; this has since been upgraded to "near threatened". Although increasing in numbers in Spain, the population of the birds in the remaining parts of the range has seen significant drops, with the blame falling on the use of an anti-inflammatory drug used on livestock, diclofenac. The drug is responsible for a significant drop in the numbers of several vulture species throughout central and southern Asia, and although primarily a bone eater, lammergeiers will also consume carrion flesh when available; the absence of Gyps vultures at a carcass means a lammergeier has unrestricted access to the remains rather than wait for the others as they normally would. Additionally, persecution in areas where sheep and goat herders drive their flocks have caused a regional extinction of lammergeiers within the southern Balkans of Europe, Syria, and Jordan; they have been recently reintroduced to the Alps of Switzerland, Austria, and Italy.