The bearded vulture ( Gypaetus barbatus, lammergeier, or ossifrage), also known as the bearded vulture, is a striking bird of prey found in southern Europe, eastern Africa, and much of Central Asia. At 4.5 to 7.8 kilograms, it is quite large for a flying bird. Here are some interesting facts.
- It’s not actually a vulture . Although it is commonly called the “bearded vulture”, it actually falls outside of the Old World group of vultures, the Aegypiinae, instead forming its own group, the Gypaetinae, with its closest living relative, the Egyptian vulture ( equally misnamed) (pictured).
- Wear makeup . Bearded vultures have unmistakable golden-orange plumage, but believe it or not, this color is not natural. The feathers themselves are white, with the golden hue coming from bathing in rust-rich dust and mud. Presumably this makes them more attractive, and is one of the few examples of cosmetics in the animal world.
- It eats more bone than any other vertebrate . 70%, sometimes even 90%, of the bearded vulture consists only of bone and bone marrow. No other bird or vertebrate is as specialized for osteophagia, as it is called, although certain invertebrates, such as zombie worms, eat more.
- One killed a famous Greek playwright . The ancient Greek Aeschylus, known as the “father of tragedy”, is said to have died when a bird dropped a tortoise on his head. If this is true, a bearded vulture is probably to blame: if a bone (or indeed a turtle) is too tough, it will lift it 50-150 meters off the ground and drop it, to shatter.