The Sketch

The Lammergeier: Public Enemy No. 1

High in the Pyrenees Mountains lies a boneyard filled with half-devoured skeletons. The keepers of this unholy crypt sweep by on nine-foot-long, gunmetal wings, their red-rimmed eyes studying the lonely terrain. They rise above the eeriness, bristly beards stirring in the wind.

Such is the Lammergeier, the bird that was almost misunderstood to extinction. Also known as the Bearded Vulture, Gypaetus barbatus is only found among the tallest peaks of the Eastern hemisphere: the Pyrenees, Mount Everest, the European Alps, the Ethiopian Highlands, the Atlas and Drakensberg Mountains, and the islands of Corsica and Crete. The bird’s fearsome nature and lofty residences have earned it few predators, but many enemies. Throughout history, people have blamed the three-foot-tall, 15-pound vulture for carrying off livestock and even children (Lammergeier means “lamb vulture” in German). It has even been charged with the murder of the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus, who is said to have perished after a famished Lammergeier mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it.

But the Lammergeier is no assassin: It’s the most extraordinary scavenger in the world. Like other vultures, it feeds solely on the dead—yet it feasts on bone rather than flesh. After spotting a fresh carcass from its vantage point in the clouds, the bird silently dives in, regardless of whoever else is waiting in line. The vulture then makes off with the bones, swallowing the small ones and dropping the femurs and ulnas down hundreds of feet to break them up on rocks and liberate the marrow—the most nutritious part of any bone-based diet. Meanwhile, the harder shards are easily turned into sludge by the Lammergeier’s stomach acid, which is more caustic than lemon juice.

Even the birds’ “cleansing” rituals are extraordinary. Lammergeiers take luxurious baths in sulfur springs rich with iron oxide, which leave the birds’ shoulders, necks, and chests looking red and bronzed. There’s some quarreling among biologists over the purpose of this pampering. One camp, from Spain, says it’s a display of prowess—the springs are hidden among the mountains, so only the most resourceful vultures are able to seek them out. The opposition, from Switzerland, believes that each soak is more like a trip to the apothecary, the iron oxide helping to fend off bacteria—an ever-present threat to the life of a scavenger. Although neither of these two arguments has been proven, one fact might swing the debate in the germaphobes’ favor: After returning to the nest, adult vultures will often rub their newly gilded feathers on their eggs and little ones. The Swiss biologists believe this transfers the therapeutic compound to the offspring, helping them avoid disease and giving them a better chance at survival.  

In the nest, the impulse to survive is everything. The Lammergeier’s nursery consists of brush, rubble, dried-up skin, and feces, piled up on an alpine ledge. Once a year, the female lays two eggs, in case things go awry with the firstborn—though it’s usually the littler offspring that meets the bitterest end. If times are harsh and meat hard to come by (the chicks are not yet ready to digest bones), the older sibling will dispatch the younger, weaker one, either by eating its food or by pecking it to oblivion.

The Lammergeier’s penchant for taking sibling rivalry a step too far (“cainism” is common among raptors), coupled with the bird’s many other outlandish traits, makes it easy to vilify. And that’s exactly what humans have done, with decades of slander, hunting, and poisoning that have contributed to a massive collapse in its populations. By 1986 the species was completely extinct in the Alps, and it remained so until conservationists from 14 organizations banded together and founded a captive-breeding program at one of Austria’s national parks. Over the next 16 years they released 184 birds throughout Europe, and have since set up the International Bearded Vulture Monitoring project to study wild individuals. Putting a number on the current global population is difficult, given the species’ attachment to higher altitudes, but it’s estimated to be somewhere between 1,300 and 6,700.

Though the rift between vultures and humans is still very real, the bird’s reputation is slowly being rehabilitated. In the South African kingdom of Lesotho, where Lammergeiers have suffered a 30 percent decline in 30 years, a local chief won his village over with a simple science experiment. He put his sheep out in a corral close to a cliff where vultures had been seen nesting, and left them there for multiple days. He then swapped the unharmed livestock out for bones, which were immediately collected by the birds. The community is now part of one of the most valuable Lammergeier conservation programs in Africa. Let's hope the rest of the world catches on, and leaves the Lammergeier to carry out its bone-crushing in peace.