The cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) is the largest bird of prey in the Old World (3) (5) and one of the heaviest and largest of all raptors (6). A large, dark brown bird, the cinereous vulture has broad wings which have a serrated appearance to their trailing edges, owing to the pointed tips of the secondary feathers (3). In flight, the tips of the wings show seven deeply splayed ‘fingers’ (5), and this species has a short, slightly wedge-shaped tail (2) (3) (5) (6) (7).
The bare skin on the head and neck of the cinereous vulture is blue-grey, and there is some blackish down on the head (2) (7) and a brown ‘Elizabethan’ ruff of feathers around the hind neck (3). This ruff is paler in older individuals (2) (6) and gives the cinereous vulture its alternative name of ‘monk vulture’, as it is thought to resemble a monk’s hood (6). This species also has a contrasting black throat and black markings around the eyes, while the bare skin around the base of the bill is pale blue-grey (3) (5). The cinereous vulture has a very powerful bill (5), which is mostly dark but has a lighter area at the base (3).
When the cinereous vulture is observed in flight, the undersides of the flight feathers are notably paler than the wing-coverts, with an even paler line running through the underwings. Some individuals display more unusual plumage, with white feathers on the upper side of the wing. It is believed that this may be a trait exclusive to males. The legs and feet of this species are pale in colour (3).
The sexes of this species are alike (7), although females are often larger than males (3). Juvenile cinereous vultures are generally darker than adults and often look almost black (2) (3) (7). Unlike adults, they lack the pale line on the underside of the wing (3), and have pinkish to pale grey skin on the head (2) (3). As the juvenile cinereous vulture gets older, the down on its head gets paler and its eyes change from dark brown to reddish-brown (3).
The adult cinereous vulture is distinguishable from the Eurasian griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus), with which it will often gather at a carcass, by its larger, squarer head, darker plumage and larger overall size (3).
The cinereous vulture rarely uses its voice, but when it does its vocalisations include unspecialised croaks, grunts and hisses when feeding, and mewing, squalling or roaring during the breeding season (2) (7). In flight, individuals fly with slow, powerful wingbeats and soar with flat wings (3).
- Also known as
- black vulture, Eurasian black vulture, European black vulture, monk vulture.
- Vautour moine.
- Buitre Negro.
- Length: 90 - 115 cm (2) (3)
- Wingspan: 250 - 295 cm (2)
- 6 - 13 kg (3)
Cinereous vulture biology
The cinereous vulture is a carrion-feeder and is usually dominant over other species when gathered at a carcass (2) (3). It feeds on medium to large carcasses (2) (3) (5) (7) and rarely takes live prey, although it may eat some insects, tortoises, snakes and lizards (2) (5) (7). The cinereous vulture feeds heavily on livestock carcasses in Mongolia and relies upon this food source for successful nesting there (7).
This vulture displays an unusual aggressive behaviour of bending over and lifting specialised breast feathers so that the feathers appear like brushes on either side of the head, and this is often associated with a slow ‘foot showing’ display. The cinereous vulture is less social than other vulture species, and usually only one individual will feed at a time. When approaching a carcass, this species’ final descent is characterised by swept-back wings, the head being held low and the feet being pushed forward in line with the head (3).
The cinereous vulture breeds either in loose colonies or alone (2) (5). The nests of this species are usually built in trees, or often on rocks in Asia (2) (7), and are built from sticks, producing huge constructions that can measure nearly two metres across and up to three metres deep (2). The cinereous vulture lays a single egg between February and April (2) (5), with an incubation period of 50 to 62 days (2). Males and females cooperate to rear their young, and the chick tends to spend more than 100 days in the nest and to stay with the adults for 2 to 3 months after fledging before it becomes independent (5).
Many pairs of cinereous vultures do not breed every year. In captivity, this species has been known to live to an impressive 39 years old (2).
Cinereous vulture range
The cinereous vulture has a large range across Europe and Asia, stretching from Spain to China in the breeding season and from the Middle East, across India and east to North and South Korea during the winter. In Europe, this species is mainly found in Spain and the Balkans region, with a small reintroduced population in France (2) (7).
Different populations of the cinereous vulture have different migratory behaviours, with the species being classed as a ‘partial migrant’. Some populations are sedentary, remaining in the same areas year-round, while others move long distances between their breeding and wintering grounds. In Central Asia, the cinereous vulture often follows nomads and their livestock around (2).
Cinereous vulture habitat
The cinereous vulture occurs in scrub, arid and semi-arid alpine steppe and open grassland, as well as forest. It can be found at elevations of around 300 to 1,400 metres in Europe, and up to 4,500 metres in Asia (2) (7).
Cinereous vulture status
The cinereous vulture is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (4).
Cinereous vulture threats
The cinereous vulture is currently facing two main threats: direct human-caused mortality and reduced food availability. Habitat loss may also present a threat to this bird. The use of poisoned baits for predator extermination, as well as shooting and the destruction of nests, all contribute to human-associated deaths. Like many other vultures, this species may also be negatively affected by the use of veterinary drugs such as diclofenac, while high concentrations of antibiotics in its prey may be increasing nestling mortality in Spain (7).
In some Asian countries, the cinereous vulture has been affected by a severe decline in one of its main prey species, the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica), as well as by general declines in both wild ungulates and domestic livestock. In some areas, livestock numbers have declined due to changing agricultural practices and a movement of people from the countryside to cities. In Europe, laws on carcass disposal have decreased the food available to the cinereous vulture, although more recent legislation allows feeding stations to operate for this and other scavengers (7).
The cinereous vulture decreased in Europe in recent centuries, and became extinct in countries such as France, Portugal, Italy, Austria and Poland (6). There are now increasing numbers of this species in parts of Europe, particularly in Spain (7) (8), but its populations are suffering declines in Asia (7) as well as decreasing in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Turkey and the Ukraine (7) (8).
Cinereous vulture conservation
Owing to the EU Birds Directive as well as cooperation between government bodies and conservationists, populations of the cinereous vulture in Europe, particularly in Spain, have experienced significant growth since the 1980s (7) (9). Strategies introduced by Spanish and Andalusian governments include the introduction of anti-poisoning guidelines. Parts of Spain and France have also developed feeding programmes in an effort to support cinereous vulture populations by supplementing their natural diet and providing a reliable, poison-free food source. However, this species may not always be willing to feed at artificial stations. Similar strategies have been implemented in Bulgaria and South Korea (7).
Other conservation tactics which have been implemented include a reintroduction programme in Grands Causses in the south of France, where a small breeding population of cinereous vultures has been established (7) (10). The cinereous vulture is also listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which means that any international trade in this species or its parts should be carefully controlled (4).
In addition, a number of further actions to aid conservation efforts for this species have been proposed. These include a survey of the status and population trends of the cinereous vulture outside of Europe, a reintroduction programme to link eastern and western populations, and enforcing laws that deal with illegal poisoning of vultures with baited meat. The population of wild rabbits, one of this vulture’s main prey species, also needs to be restored in the Iberian Peninsula and the Balearic Islands (7).
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- Of or relating to high mountains, above the tree line.
- The flesh of a dead animal.
- Flight feathers
- The feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
- The act of incubating eggs; that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
- Birds of prey.
- Secondary feathers
- The shorter flight feathers projecting along the inner edge of a bird’s wing.
- A vast grassland plain, characterised by few trees and low rainfall.
- Ungulate (ungulates)
- A general term for a mammal with hooves. Includes the artiodactyls or ‘even-toed ungulates’ (pigs, deer, sheep, antelopes and cattle) and perissodactyls or ‘odd-toed ungulates’ (horses, tapirs and rhinoceroses).
- Small feathers which cover the bases of other larger feathers, helping to smooth airflow over the wings.
IUCN Red List (October, 2013)
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. Available at:
Clark, S. (1999) A Field Guide to the Raptors of Europe, The Middle East and North America. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
CITES (October, 2013)
World Association of Zoos and Aquariums - Cinereous vulture (August, 2013)
Vulture Conservation Foundation - Cinereous vulture (August, 2013)
BirdLife International - Cinereous vulture (August, 2013)
BirdLife International (2004) Birds in Europe: Population Estimates, Trends and Conservation Status. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.
De la Peunte, J., Moreno-Opo, R. and Del Moral, J.C. (2007) El Buitre Negro en España. Censo Nacional (2006). SEO/BirdLife, Madrid. Available at:
Eliotout, B., Lecuyer, P. and Duriez, O. (2007) Premiers résultats sur la biologie de reproduction du vautour moine Aegypius monachus en France. Alauda, 75(3): 253-264.