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The bearded vulture

Gypaetus barbatus

The name Gypaetus for this elegant giant from the skies derives from two Greek words, gyps (vulture) and aetos (eagle). The adjective barbatus, on the other hand, refers to the presence of silky feathers that surround the eye and grow down to the beak where they form a kind of beard. With a wingspan of almost three metres, and a weight of up to 7kg, the bearded vulture is one of the biggest European birds. Vultures are usually scavengers that mostly feed on the carcasses of dead animals, but this bird follows an even stricter diet that mainly consists of bones. This adaptation presents an obvious advantage to the bird: most other animals cannot digest bones; hence the bearded vulture has few competitors as far as its staple food is concerned. The bearded vulture is able to swallow and digest bones the size of a bullock’s backbone, but it also feeds on even bigger bones. It will carry large bones to a cliff and drop them onto the rocky scree down below, from a height of 50-80m, in order to crack them into smaller pieces that can then be eaten more easily.
The bearded vulture
 
The bearded vulture

Adaptation

One of the most characteristic aspects of the bearded vulture’s plumage are the silky but ruffled feathers hanging down from its beak. The wings and tail are dark, whereas the head and breast are reddish. In contrast to bearded vultures in the wild, birds living in captivity do not have reddish parts. It has been discovered that this characteristic is, in fact, a kind of “make-up”: when vultures find a water-source with a high content of iron oxide, they like to immerse themselves in this water and their feathers are dyed in the reddish mud.
Another interesting characteristic is the area around the eyes that turns gleaming red when the animal is agitated. Unlike other vultures, the bearded vulture does not have a bald head but is covered with dense plumage. The only difference between the sexes is the size: the female is slightly bigger.
The bearded vulture is often found near rocky cliffs, in steep valleys and on plateaus, where it displays its extraordinary ability to make use of upward currents, on which it will glide for many kilometres, patrolling in this way large areas. It is also capable of turning over in flight and carrying out other manoeuvres of incredible agility.
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