A large vulture
found high in mountainous areas, originally ranging across much of southern Europe
, and central Asia
, though it has become quite rare in modern times and is in danger of extinction
. The lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus,
is also known as the bearded vulture
and the ossifrage
The bird's most common name is a gross misnomer. Its name meaning lamb vulture in German, the lammergeier is a scavenger, physically incapable of attacking a lamb or any other animal of substantial size. Ossifrage is a much more appropriate name. From the Latin ossifraga, this vulture is in fact a "bone-breaker," though its jaws are nowhere near strong enough to do the job. (More on this later.) Interestingly, this word forms the root for osprey, the common name for an entirely unrelated bird of the hawk family.
A fully grown lammergeier can reach a wingspan of about 3 meters, supposedly the largest bird native to Europe. In flight it is recognizable by its diamond-shaped tail. Its body is covered with dark grey to black feathers, though its underside is paler, often with a reddish-brown tinge from the iron oxide the birds use to preen and remove pests. Captive birds, lacking this substance, are lighter in color. The lammergeier's head is a very distinctive gold, with its namesake "beard" of black feathers trailing down its face from below its eyes. Despite its carrion-feeding habits, it's actually quite an elegant-looking bird and a graceful flyer, more closely related to eagles than any other species of vulture.
Though its diet consists mainly of carrion, the lammergeier goes about its feeding a bit differently than the average vulture. It's not strong or aggressive enough to compete with other scavengers at a fresh carcass, so it has to hang around and wait for scraps. And then it gets hold of the bones.
As I mentioned earlier, lammergeier jaws aren't equipped with bonecrushing power. The birds managed to adapt - but then, they've survived as a species for millennia, so they must be doing something right! Anyhow, when a lammergeier finds a suitable bone, it holds it in its beak and takes off, soaring with the winds and gradually rising until reaching sufficient height for gravity to do what the bird's jaws can't. From heights of up to 100 meters, the extraordinarily patient lammergeier drops its meal onto the rocks below.
Sometimes the bone breaks, but often it doesn't, so the lammergeier has another go at it. After a few bone-dropping sessions, the bone is usually cracked enough that the bird can access the nourishing marrow inside. Its tongue is specially adapted for scooping the stuff out. In addition, the vulture's digestive tract contains enzymes powerful enough to dissolve smaller bones, which are simply swallowed whole.
A shy, silent bird, the lammergeier makes its home in remote, rocky areas, flying for long distances into more populous regions to find food. Its sinister appearance and macabre feeding habits gave it its entirely undeserved reputation as a hazard to children and livestock, and was probably the cause of the species being hunted to near extinction in Europe. Recent efforts to reintroduce lammergeiers into much of their former range have been somewhat successful, though the birds' slow reproduction makes things difficult.
When large bones are scarce, a lammergeier may pick up a live tortoise, just about the only animal it can catch, and carry it aloft to be smashed against the rocks. Legend has it that the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus was killed by an unexpectedly airborne tortoise, dropped by a bird that had mistaken the poet's bald head for a rock.