Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Lammergeier, my Favorite Scavenger

Just as I do not see color, I see people, I only see beauty when I look at God's creatures. They are all creations of God, and therefore worthy of respect and admiration. 

The Lammergeier, a species of vulture and one of my favorite birds.
Although it is feared by many in different areas of Europe, it is one of the gentlest scavengers. 
Photograph by Richard Bartz. 

When I lived in Texas I spent hours each week photographing vultures. Venues of vultures would circle above our house, playing on the drafts of wind. My neighbors teased me, calling me "vulture bait," because they know I am a vegetarian, and Turkey Vultures will only eat creatures that were vegetarians before they died. Other species, such as Black Vultures, may eat live animals depending on how hungry they are, and sometimes Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures intermingle. 

A venue of vultures feeding in Marble Falls, Texas.
Photo by Darla Sue Dollman.

One of my favorites species of vultures is the Lammergeier, and you will not find this bird in Texas! I think they are magnificent, and their great size can be intimidating, but some day, I would love to be able to see one soaring through the skies, playing on the warm updrafts of wind the way the vultures like to do. 

A Lammergeier at rest. I would love to see 
one of these magnificent birds in flight.
They have huge territories, 
so it is difficult to determine how many exist in the world. 

The Lammergeier, one of the largest of the scavengers, is unique in many ways, including its appearance. It is a powerful creature that soars through the skies on ten feet of wings, though it is an exceptionally gentle creature. The lammergeier, or bearded vulture, has tufts of black feathers beneath its beak give the appearance of a mustache, or beard.

Lammergeier soaring through the skies. 

The Lammergeier, (Gypaetus barbatus), also called the Bearded Vulture, is the only member of the genus Gypaetus in the Falconiformes family of Old World Vultures. The Lammergeier lives in the highest mountains of Europe, India, Africa, Tibet, and was recently re-introduced into the Alps. The Lammergeier's name is from the German word Lämmergeier, meaning lamb-vulture, stemming from a mistaken belief that it attacks lambs, but it is a true scavenger. 

Lammergeiers get along with just about everyone. 
They wait patiently for other scavengers to do their work, then finish cleaning up the mess.
This is the job of vultures--they are God's vacuum cleaners. 

Though one of the largest birds in the sky, the Lammergeier is also known to be one of the least aggressive. Like most vultures, the Lammergeier feeds on the carcasses of dead animals, but instead of eating meat, the Lammergeier survives on the marrow in the shattered bones.

Anatomy of the Lammergeier

Adult Lammergeiers have a black stripe over their eyes and bristles at the base of the beak giving them the appearance of a beard, which is why they are sometimes called Bearded Vultures. 

Lammergeier in Pradesh, India.
Photo by J.M. Garg

The lammergeier generally has red plumage with a yellow tint on its head, though captive Lammergeiers are white on the head and breast. According to the World Wildlife Fund, captive Lammergeiers generally have white necks and under parts, which could not be explained for many years until wild Lammergeiers were observed deliberately putting iron oxide on their plumage, perhaps as a way to blend better with their surroundings. The Lammergeier has a grayish-black tail and wings. It is the largest bird in the Alps at 45 inches from head to tail with a wingspan of 90 inches. It weighs between 11 and 15 pounds.

Lammergeier, or Bearded Vulture. Photo by Richard Bartz.
It is not clear if the photographer took these photos in Switzerland, 
but the quality of photos by Richard Bartz is awe-inspiring! 

Breeding Habits

The Lammergeier's mating dance consists of diving and swooping. Lammergeiers mate for life and mated couples cover large territories that they defend quite fiercely. They build nests in cracks in high cliffs and generally lay only one egg, which they incubate 53 days. Both parents feed the baby Lammergeier. Lammergeiers leave their parents after 110 to 115 days when they learn to fly.

Eating Habits

Lammergeiers do not fight other scavengers for a carcass, they wait patiently until the other creatures have finished their work because they eat the bones. Lammergeiers grasp the bones between their legs, fly high into the air, then drop the bones onto rocks so they shatter into small pieces, earning them the nickname of "bone-breakers.". They often use the same set of rocks, called an ossuary. According to the Discovery Channel series Life, the digestive system of the Lammergeier has evolved over time to allow the birds to swallow the bone shards whole. The Lammergeier also eats turtles in a similar fashion, dropping them from great heights.

Lammergeier in Switzerland. Photo by Noel Reynolds.

Threats to Survival

There are many false rumors circulating about the Lammergeier, claiming that they kill lambs and even small children. These rumors are, quite obviously, untrue as Lammergeiers are scavengers. Nevertheless, Lammergeiers are frequently killed out of fear through the use of poisoned carcasses. They were also hunted for sport and museum displays. 

Lammergeier, the Bearded Vulture. Photo by Richard Bartz in Munich, Switzerland. 

According to the World Wildlife Fund, only 100 breeding pairs of Lammergeiers exist in Europe at this time. However, the Lammergeier is not considered to be a threatened species by the IUCN in spite of its dwindling numbers because its decline is not believed to be rapid enough to approach the threshold criteria for vulnerable status.


  • "Bearded Vulture." Vulture Territory. Retrieved August 1, 2010.
  • "Bearded Vulture." World Wildlife Fund. Retrieved August 1, 2010.
  • Chittenden, Robin. "Turkey Vulture." Birds of Prey of the World. St. Martin's Press. New York: 2004.
  • "Gypaetus barbatus." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved August 1, 2010.
  • "Birds." Life Series/Special. Discovery Channel. Narrated by Oprah Winfrey. Aired April 4, 2010.
  • Silverman, Jacob." Lammergeier: Scavenger of the Skies. Animal Planet. Life: Discovery Channel. Retrieved August 1, 2010.