Bearded Vulture

The magnificent bearded vulture, one of the largest birds of prey, is also commonly known as the lammergeier

South Africa BirdlifeThe Bearded Vulture {Gypaetus barbatus}

The magnificent bearded vulture, one of the largest birds of prey, is also commonly known as the lammergeier (from Dutch, meaning “lamb vulture”). Its closest relative is the Egyptian vulture and it is a near-threatened species, as classified by the IUCN.

The bearded vulture is a large bird, and females are slightly larger than their male counterparts. It is not bald-headed, unlike many other vulture species. This vulture is characterised by its long, narrow wings, elongated body shape, and long, wedge-shaped tail. The tail varies in length from 43 to 52 centimetres. The thick, strong neck and powerful talons, coupled with its stocky gait, make this bird look even bulkier and more imposing.

Adults are usually mostly grey in colour, with plenty of rusty-red (or orange) and white markings. The forehead is off-white, standing in delightful contrast to the black band that goes across the eyes, lores and chin. Thanks to their regular bathing in the red dust and mud of their habitat, their bodies are frequently more red or orange than anything else. They also drink water that is rich in minerals, which are also rust-coloured. Juveniles are mostly brown until they are around 5 years old.

Quick Facts


Range weight: 4.5 – 7.8 kg
Range length: 94 – 125 cm
Range wingspan: 2.3 – 2.8 m.


The bearded vulture is associated with mountainous habitats, and is seldom found below 1 000 metres above sea level. They are often found near the tops of mountains, above the tree line. They have been known to reach an elevation of some 7 500 metres on Mount Everest.


Although this vulture’s numbers are vastly depleted, it can still be found (in limited populations) all over the world. In South Africa, it is found only in the Drakensberg Mountain Range. Globally, it is found in the Himalayas, Pyrenees, Alps, Caucasus region, Altai Mountains, Alborzs, Zagros Mountains, Ladakh, the mountains of western and central China, and the Arabian Peninsula.


In keeping with its vulture identity, the bearded vulture feeds mainly on carrion, which refers to the dead and, more often than not, decayed flesh of another animal. However, more than other vultures, this species is also known to hunt live prey. Tortoises are one of the largest sources of food for these birds, and are often dropped from a great height in order to break the tough shell. They will do the same with other prey that needs to be killed, which is often as large and heavy as the bird itself. These include rock hyraxes and hares.

Although it will eat the flesh of these animals, it favours the bone marrow, often dropping the bones from dizzying heights or bashing them on hard rocks with their strong beaks to get to the nutritious, rich marrow inside. This remains available long after all the flesh has been eaten, leaving increased food opportunities to the bearded vultures for a longer time.


Because they are always on the lookout for carcasses or live prey, the bearded vultures fly close to (between 2 and 4 metres from) the rock-laden ground. A breeding pair may sometimes scavenge for food together. This bird may cover a foraging area of up to 2 square kilometres every day.

These tend to be solitary creatures, but breeding pairs have strong, loyal bonds. Their breeding and territorial displays are spectacular. These involve spiralling, falling and the showing of powerful talons. They may also lock talons with another bird and spiral down as they tumble from impressive heights together.


This species of vulture is not a particularly vocal one. In fact, it only really communicates by means of a high-pitched whistle when it is participating in a breeding display. Around the nest, it may make a softer cheek-a-cheek sound.


The breeding season changes, but is usually from May to January in South Africa. The nest starts out being about 1 metre in diameter. But, after several uses, can extend up to about 2.5 metres across. It is constructed out of large sticks and lined with a variety of animal matter that has been sourced from food. The vulture builds its nests in caves, on ledges, or on rocky outcrops to protect the eggs from other predators.

The female lays 1 or 2 eggs (although 3 have, on some very rare occasions, been recorded). After around 2 months of incubation, the chicks hatch and are totally dependent on their parents for food, warmth and protection. After about 100 to 130 days, they will be ready to fledge, but may still depend on their parents for up to 2 years.


Incubation lasts 53 to 60 days.

Life Expectancy

In the wild, the bearded vulture lives for an average of 21.4 years. However, in captivity, free from threat and environmental factors, they have been known to reach a ripe old age of 45 years.


This near-threatened species is slowly trying to regain its population numbers. Their main threats are poisoning (from eating the carcasses of predators that have been poisoned by farmers), reduced food supply, the destruction of habitat, disturbance of the nests and collisions with power lines. This bird has also been hunted as a trophy.


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