Bearded Vultures in the Pyrenees
If you’re lucky when hiking in the Pyrenees you’ll see a huge bird flying by overhead with beautiful rusty coloured feathers. If you’re even luckier, you’ll see it carry a large bone high into the sky and drop it to smash it into pieces before landing and swallowing them. What is this bid and why is it eating bones?
With a wing span of nearly three metres, the enormous bearded vulture or lammergeier is one of the emblematic species of the Pyrenees. They live in the high mountains of Europe, Asia and Africa but the Pyrenees has the highest concentration in Europe of these magnificent birds.
The bearded vulture is the only bird in the world to live almost entirely on a diet of bones. It makes it’s spanish name of ‘Quebrantahusos’ – the bonebreaker – very appropriate! The vultures swallow bones of up to 20cm. Powerful acids in their stomachs then dissolve the bones and they digest the marrow.
For large bones the bearded vulture circles high in the air above stony sites called ‘rompederos’ – breaking places. They drop the bones breaking them on the stones below and then swallow the broken pieces. There are various feeding sites n the central Pyrenees where the vultures are left bones such as pigs spines by park rangers as part of the conservation program
Three ways to see Bearded Vulture
Come and see bearded vultures for yourself. We’re lucky enough to see bearded vultures most weeks on all of our holidays but these three are especially good for sightings.
Picos de Europa
Two centre holiday exploring the limestone summits of the Picos. Visit both Fuente De and the Cares Gorge
The bearded vulture has an official conservation status of near threatened, but in Europe it was in huge danger of extinction until conservation programs such as the Fundación para La Conservación del Quebrantahuesos in Aínsa have helped stabilise and increase the population, as well as successfully re-introduced the species in the Picos de Europa.
It is one of the largest vultures in Europe with a wingspan of up to 2.85 metres (nearly 10 feet), a long diamond-shaped tail, a red ring around its eyes and a beard formed by black feathers under his beak. This beard gives the vulture its scientific name ‘Gypaetus barbatus’ which literally means ‘bearded vulture-eagle’.
The colour of its plumage (which is the same for both males and females) changes as it matures, especially on its head, neck and chest, that turns from black and brown when it´s a juvenile to a beautiful rusty orange when it becomes an adult. This rusty orange colour is due to its habit of bathing in mud which dyes its feathers.
The strangest aspect of the bearded vulture is its feeding habit, as it feeds almost exclusively on bones normally from domestic livestock and wild goats/chamoix. If the bones are small enough, it swallows them directly. They can easily swallow a bone of 20cm in length.
However, if the bones are too large, it flies with the bone in their claws and drop them onto specific rocky areas called ‘rompederos’ in Spanish – ‘ossuaries’, smashing them into smaller pieces that they can swallow. They can fly with bones weighing up to 4kg which is over half their bodyweight.
Their stomach’s are full of strong acid (with an estimated ph of 1) and the bones take just 24 hours to be dissolved and digested.
This unusual feeding behaviour gives rise to its Spanish name “quebrantahuesos” which literary means bone breaker.
Lammergeiers form reproductive units at an average age of seven years, but it takes them between one or three years more to attempt the reproduction. These units are usually formed by two or three individuals. In the latter case, they are normally two males and a female.
The reproductive cycle is divided into different stages. The pre-laying takes place between September and November. This is the period of sexual activity and also when the birds construct the nests and defend their territory. Their nests are made mainly of branches and wool, being the latter fundamental for maintaining the temperature of the egg during the incubation.
One or two eggs are laid with a maximal interval of six days between them. The incubation of the eggs occurs between December and February and both male and female participate on it. After the birth, the breeding takes place between March and August. If two chicks are born, it has been observed that the older tends to be aggressive with the younger, getting most part of the food, causing starvation of the younger chick. Few months later (around 120 days after the birth) the chicks finally emancipate from their parents.
This species has an important territorial behaviour and the reproductive units can occupy between 100 and 300 km2. Hence, the separation between the different nests has to be considerable, ranging from 3 km to 28 km.
This behaviour forces a juvenile dispersion that occurs not only within the mountain range where they were born, but also towards different mountain ranges. During this period the juvenile tries to find another individual and a new place for the reproduction. The younger the bird is the longer distances it flies to find a new spot for reproduction.
Bearded vulture facts:
Wingspan: 2.5 – 2.85 metres (8 – 10 feet)
Length: 110 – 130 cm (40 – 50 inches)
Weight: 5 – 7 kg (11 – 15 lbs)
Wing: 80 – 130 cm (30 – 50 inches)
Tail: 40 – 60 cm (15 – 24 inches)
Lifespan: up to 40 years in captivity (less in wild)
English name: Bearded Vulture or Lammergeier
Scientific name: Gypaetus barbatus
Spanish name: Quebrantahuesos
How to identify a Bearded Vulture
Bearded vultures have a long, diamond shaped tail that is very distinctive even when they are flying high above you.
Griffon vultures have a much shorter and wedged shaped tail.
Egyptian vultures also have diamond shaped tails and although they are much smaller in size, sometimes in silhouette they can look similar.
When close it’s very easy to see the rusty colour of the bearded vultures plumage on its head and body.
Remember only the adult birds have this colour and the juveniles are much blacker with little colouring – see photo on opposite page.
The wings of a bearded vulture have a streamlined and aerodynamic look – similar to a golden eagle.
The more common griffon vultures have much more rectangular wings.
Bearded Vulture Foundation
The FCQ (Fundación para la conservación del Quebrantahuesos) is dedicated to the conservation of the bearded vulture. Its projects protect and increase the population in the Pyrenees and have re-introduced the bearded vulture to the Picos de Europa.
The FCQ has an excellent information centre in Ainsa and it’s well worth a visit. There are displays about the wildlife of the Pyrenees and lts of information about the conservation efforts. The highlight is the raptor rescue centre which has a pair of eagle owls and a bearded vulture that have been sadly injured and are unable to be released into the wild.
For more information visit: www.quebrantahuesos.org
FCQ – Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos