In the column Since You Asked in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our June 2018 issue.
What bird has the strangest or most specialized diet? — Alex Nelson, Denver, Colorado
I’ll give that distinction to the Bearded Vulture, or Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus). This huge Old World vulture, which can weigh over 13 pounds, eats bones nearly exclusively. It consumes not just the marrow but entire bones. Small ones are eaten whole, while larger ones are carried away from a carcass and dropped from a great height so they break open. The vultures have very acidic gastric juices and long intestinal tracts that help them digest their unique diet.
The name Lammergeier reflects the myth that “the bird killed lambs and sometimes even small children,” according to the Vulture Conservation Foundation. “Bearded Vultures were hunted down fanatically, and in the Alpine region there was even a bounty for each animal killed.” The species was once found throughout mountainous areas in southern Europe, but now the foundation reports that it occurs only “in the Pyrenees (around 100 breeding pairs), Corsica (8 pairs), Crete (9-10 breeding pairs), and a reintroduced population in in the Alps (20 breeding pairs).”
About Julie Craves
Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She writes about her research on the blog Net Results, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds.
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