The lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus, or bearded vulture, is the largest of alpine birds, with a wingspan that can attain nearly 10 feet. In flight, the cross-shaped silhouette, pointed wings, wedge-shaped tail, and paler belly are unmistakable. The base of the bill has a dark “beard,” and the eyes are yellow, surrounded by a red orbital ring. In a behavior of still unknown function, lammergeiers smear their breast feathers with iron-rich mud, turning them yellow-orange. Pairs nest on ledges on inaccessible rocky cliffs.
This raptor feeds on dead animals, scavenging the carcasses of sheep, cattle, deer, ibex, and other large mammals. Lammergeiers swallow the smaller bones, carrying larger ones into the air and dropping them onto rocks to break them and make the marrow accessible. It was long believed that these birds attack livestock and even children (“lammergeier” is from the German for “lamb vulture”). Lammergeiers were shot and poisoned throughout the Alps, the Pyrenees, and other parts of the range; many countries even offered bounties. This resulted in the vulture’s precipitous decline and to its extinction in the Alps in the early twentieth century.
An international reintroduction project using captive-bred birds was launched in 1978. Individuals were released in Italy’s Stelvio National Park beginning in 1998, and soon the Aosta Valley and surrounding areas were occupied by several successfully breeding pairs. Thirty nesting pairs were tallied in the Italian Alps in 2022 and 2023.
Though it is legally protected in Europe, the lammergeier is still vulnerable to disturbance, especially in the breeding season. Direct killing no longer occurs, but nesting pairs can be disturbed by mountain climbers, photographers, or just the curious, leading to abandonment of the egg or the death of the chick.