Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)

Also known as: Bearded vulture, lammergeyer
French: Gypaète barbu
GenusGypaetus (1)
SizeLength: 1 - 1.2 m (2)
Weight4.5 - 7 kg (2)

The lammergeier is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Huge and majestic, the lammergeier is a highly distinctive bird-of-prey and one of the largest old world vultures (2) (3) (4). Enormous wings enable it to soar with characteristic ease above the mountain slopes, while the outline of its long, diamond-shaped tail is unmistakeable in flight (2) (4) (5). The head is creamy-yellow with black eye patches that extend below the short, narrow bill in the form of tufted whiskers (2) (3) (4), hence the alternative name of the bearded vulture (6). The neck and the underparts are a rusty-orange colour, while the back, wings and tail are dark grey-blue to black (2) (4) (6). The juveniles are much less distinctive than the adults, having a variably brown, patchy plumage (3) (6). Up to 13 subspecies have been described, differing to varying degrees in size and appearance, but only two are commonly recognised, Gypaetus barbatus barbatus and G. b. meridionalis (3) (7).

The lammergeier ranges from southern Europe through the Middle East to northeastern China, and also occurs in parts of north, east and southern Africa (6) (7) (8). Gypaetus barbatus meridionalis occurs in southwestern Arabia and east and southern Africa, while G. b. barbatus occupies the rest of its range (7).

This high altitude bird-of-prey typically inhabits remote mountain ranges in a variety of vegetation types, ranging from alpine meadows to sparsely-vegetated, rocky slopes (3) (6). It is mostly found above 1,000 metres, with some individuals on Mount Everest being recorded an impressive 7,500 metres above sea level (3).

Amongst the most skilled gliders, the lammergeier is magnificent in flight, hardly ever seeming to beat its wing as it soars high above the mountain passes (6). Although, like other vultures, the lammergeier is a consummate scavenger, it is somewhat unique in that it specialises at feeding on bones. While small bones are eaten whole, large bones are carried into the air, and dropped from height onto rocks below. This intriguing technique, which results in the bones shattering on the rocks, provides the bird with access to the nutritious marrow inside (2) (3) (6). In addition to bones and other carrion, this species does take some live prey, such as tortoises, hyraxes and hares, which receive a similar treatment to the large bones (3).

The lammergeier breeds in pairs, with each pair commanding a large territory within which a nest is built on an accessible crag, a rocky ledge, or in a smallish cave. During the breeding season, which varies in timing geographically, courting pairs perform spectacular displays, swooping and soaring together, and occasionally interlocking their talons and spiralling downwards almost to the ground (3) (6). The nest is made from a massive pile of branches lined with wool, dung, dried skin and sometimes even rubbish. One to two eggs are normally laid in each clutch and incubated for around 53 to 60 days before hatching. The chicks fledge after 100 to 130 days but remain dependant on the parent birds for up to a year (3). Young birds are known to wander widely, but adults are normally resident within huge home ranges (3) (7).

Despite being widespread, the lammergeier occurs in low densities and is considered to be uncommon or rare across significant parts of its range (3). Furthermore, most populations appear to be declining due to a range of factors including hunting, poisoning, habitat degradation and disturbance (3) (7) (8). Fortunately, however, there are some areas, such as the Himalayas, where the lammergeier remains abundant (6) (7).

At the global level, the lammergeier’s rate of decline is not currently thought to be sufficiently rapid, or the population size sufficiently small, for this species to warrant classification under a threatened category on the IUCN Red List (1) (8). However, because the lammergeier is extremely vulnerable in some regions such as Europe and Southern Africa, there are a several conservation projects being undertaken for this species. This includes an ambitious and highly successful reintroduction program in the European Alps which has been in operation since the late 1970s under the direction of the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture (7).

To find out more about the conservation of the lammergeier, visit:

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  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2009)
  2. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  3. Ferguson-Lees, J. and Christie, D.A. (2001) Raptors of the World. Helm Identification Guides, A & C Black Publishers, London.
  4. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
  5. Jonsson, L. (1982) Birds of the Mediterranean and Alps. Croom Helm, London.
  6. Burton, M. and Burton, R. (2002) International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish, New York.
  7. Global Raptor Information Network (September, 2009)
  8. BirdLife International (September, 2009)