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A flying Lammergeier in Zoo Berlin Friedrichsfelde
Image: imago/Hohlfeld

Punk rock vultures

Klaus Esterluß
March 27, 2015

Unlike old tales would have us believe, they do not feed on children, but bearded vultures have what it takes to be cruel mythological rock stars. They eat bones, look creepy, and they dye their hair. Well, feathers.

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They are no role models of elegance, those huge birds with wild feathers, hunched backs, beady eyes and bald, snake-like heads. But the bearded vulture might be the world's most stylish winged creatures. According to Antoni Margalida, a biologist from Spain, the lammergeier, as it is also known, is the only bird that uses cosmetics to dye its plumage.

It all starts at the age of seven, when the vultures become adolescent. As Margalida explains, the birds dip their undersides into soil, then use their beaks and talons to spread the tint from foot to neck. They then rub their heads against their stained shoulders in a procedure which leaves them with orangey, sometimes punky pink feathers.

The big birds - vultures can weight up to 18 pounds (almost 8 kilograms) - have featured in many creepy myths, and were nearly driven to extinction by the belief that they would steal and eat human babies. They don't to that, but their diet and behaviour leave much to be desired. Although they lay two eggs, only one chick will be raised, because the stronger one kicks its sibling out of the nest to die. They also fight every other vulture that comes close to their (vast) territory.

Not enough? The bearded vultures have one extraordinary and rather nasty habit. Between 70 and 90 percent of what they eat is bone. Hard to swallow, isn't it? But it’s good for the lammergeier, which consequently never to compete with other animals for food. Whenever there's fresh kill, the vulture just sits and waits for the predator to strip the skeleton for it to pick at.

Back to the feathers. They might sometimes look like they are stained with blood. But - to strike a blow for the bearded vulture - it's just cosmetics that give it the cool look. And it is a unique feature in the bird world.

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