Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus)
|Size||Length: 58 – 70 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 155 – 170 cm (2)
|Weight||1600 – 2200 g (2)|
Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1) and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
A small vulture with a very large range, the Egyptian vulture has an unmistakable appearance. Adults have largely white to pale grey plumage, which contrasts markedly with the black flight-feathers and the bold yellow bare skin on the face (2). The long, narrow bill has a yellow base and terminates with a black tip (2) (4). The tail is short and wedge-shaped. The legs may be greyish-white, pink or pale yellow. Two subspecies of the Egyptian vulture are recognised; Neophron percnopterus ginginianus is slightly smaller than Neophron percnopterus percnopterus and has an entirely yellow bill. Juveniles have much darker plumage than the adults (2), and may be grey-brown, brown or blackish-brown (4).
The Egyptian vulture has a very large range. N. p. percnopterus occurs in southern Europe, east to Central Asia and north-west India, and south through North Africa, Arabia and the Sahel zone to northern Tanzania, south-western Angola and north-western Namibia. Isolated populations also occur in the Canary Islands and the Cape Verde Islands (2). N. p. ginginianus can be found in Nepal and India, except for the north-western parts (2). Most Egyptian vulture populations migrate for winter to the south of the Sahara, but some remain on their breeding grounds (4) (5).
The Egyptian vulture generally inhabits open, arid areas and can be found in steppe, desert, pastures and cereal fields, but requires rocky sites for nesting (2). It is often found near human habitations, for example, near or in towns (2), around rubbish dumps, slaughterhouses and fishing ports (4).
While the Egyptian vulture is normally a solitary bird, or is seen in pairs, large groups of vultures may congregate at feeding sites or at communal night roosts (2), usually on cliffs (4). Each day, these vultures may travel up to 80 kilometres in search of food (2), flying with strong, deep wing beats or soaring whilst surveying the ground (4). The Egyptian vulture is an opportunist and will feed on a huge range of food that it encounters. Carrion comprises the majority of its diet, including dead birds, small mammals, livestock and large wild animals (2). It will often feed just on the scraps of large carcasses after other vultures have consumed the majority of the soft flesh (2) (4). This undiscriminating bird will also scavenge on a wide range of organic waste, including rotting fruit, vegetables and even excrement (2), and will sometimes prey on small animals, particularly those weak or injured, such as rabbits, chicks, spawning or dying fish, and some insects (2). The Egyptian vulture also consumes eggs and, most remarkably, will throw stones at them to break open the shell – an incredible and rare example of tool-use in birds (6).
The Egyptian vulture is largely a monogamous bird, and undertakes a courtship which includes undulating flights and mutual preening (4). The pair will construct a nest on a cliff, either in a cave or on a ledge protected by an overhang, or very occasionally in a tree. The nest is built of sticks and lined with masses of wool, hair, rags or the remains of food, and measures an impressive 1.5 metres across. Normally two eggs are laid, which are incubated for 42 days. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the chicks until they fledge at the age of 70 to 85 days. Egyptian vultures become sexually mature at four to five years of age and are known to live for up to 37 years in captivity (2).
Numerous threats are pushing this Endangered bird towards extinction. In Africa, declines have been caused by the loss of wild ungulate populations and, in some areas, overgrazing by livestock (5). In Europe, the Egyptian vulture has been suffering severe, long-term declines; the result of disturbance, lead poisoning from gun shot, direct poisoning and electrocution by powerlines, as well as regulations introduced within the European Union to control the disposal of animal carcasses, which have greatly reduced food availability for this scavenger. In addition, Avian pox has been cited as the cause of Egyptian vulture deaths in Bulgaria (5). In India, diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug often used for livestock, is likely to be the source of recent and extremely rapid declines in Egyptian vulture populations (5) (7). This drug, which is also responsible for devastating declines in other vulture species, poisons vultures when they feed on the flesh of treated livestock (8).
Throughout its range, the Egyptian vulture occurs in a number of protected areas, as well as being the subject of monitoring, supplementary feeding programmes and campaigns against the illegal use of poisons (5). In 2006, manufacture of the veterinary form of the drug diclofenac was banned by the Indian, Nepali and Pakistani governments (9) (10). While this was a remarkable step forward in vulture conservation, the drug remains widely available and the human form of the drug is sometimes being used to treat livestock instead (9). Many more measures may be necessary if the long-term survival of the Egyptian vulture is to be assured. BirdLife International recommends relaxing European Union regulations with regards to the disposal of animal carcasses, lobbying for the ban of diclofenac throughout the species range, and protecting nest sites, as just some of the measures which would benefit the Egyptian vulture (5).
For further information on vulture declines in Asia see:
- Vulture Rescue:
For more information on this and other bird species please see:
- BirdLife International:
Authenticated (10/06/08) by Dr. Richard Cuthbert, Research Biologist, RSPB.
- Carrion: the flesh of a dead animal.
- Flight-feathers: the feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
- Monogamous: having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
- Sahel: A semiarid region of north-central Africa south of the Sahara desert that stretches across six countries from Senegal to Chad.
- Steppe: a biome (or subdivision of the Earth’s surface) that is composed of a swathe of temperate grassland stretching from Romania to China.
- Subspecies: a population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Ungulate: a hoofed, grazing mammal.
IUCN Red List (January, 2008)
- del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1994) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
CITES (January, 2008)
- Clark, W.S. (1999) A Field Guide to the Raptors of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
BirdLife International (May, 2008)
- Van Lawick-Goodall, J. and van Lawick-Goodall, H. (1966) Use of tools by the Egyptian vulture Neophron percnopterus. Nature, 212: 1468 - 1469.
- Cuthbert, R.J., Green, R.E., Ranade, S., Saravanan, S., Pain, D.J., Prakash, V. and Cunningham, A.A. (2006) Rapid populations declines of Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus) and red-headed vultures (Sarcogyps calvus) in India. Animal Conservation, 9: 349 - 354.
- Green, R.E., Newton, I., Shultz, S., Cunningham, A.A., Gilbert, M., Pain, D.J. and Prakash, V. (2004) Diclofenac poisoning as a cause of vulture population declines across the Indian subcontinent. Journal of Applied Ecology, 41: 793 - 800.
Vulture Rescue (May, 2008)
- Cuthbert, R. (2008) Pers. comm.