Guardians of our health and our environment

Vultures are not only highly evolved birds of prey with finely-honed senses, they also make an important contribution to the world’s ecosystems. And these scavengers are moreover indispensable guardians of our health. Recent studies have even shown that vultures actively protect our climate.

Scuffle at the carcass

Using its broad wings, a griffon vulture tries to gain respect and space at the carcass.

© Hristo Peshev/FWFF
Bearded vulture drops a bone from the sky

Quebrantahuesos, "bone crushers" is the Spanish name for the bearded vulture. This species of vulture specialises in bone marrow. To get at the coveted food, the vultures shatter the bones by dropping them from a great height.

© A. Oosthuizen/Deposit

Bears and foxes, ravens and buzzards: there are several scavengers in Europe, but vultures are considered the most effective amongst them. For example, a hundred vultures can consume a dead animal weighing 60 kilograms in less than 30 minutes. No wonder carrion never stays lying around for long in nature. We have almost forgotten how important this is in our tidy Central European landscape, where we may only ever encounter dead animals on a country road.

But how do scavengers manage to digest their food without coming to harm? The secret of vultures lies in their extremely corrosive stomach acid that has a pH value of 0.7 – a value comparable to battery acid! Germs don't stand a chance. To protect themselves from pathogens in their feathers, vultures use the sun. When vultures soar at altitudes of several thousand metres, looking for food, the UV light also kills all germs.

In addition to preventing epidemics, vultures also perform another important service to our ecosystem, which was only researched in more detail in 2022. The decomposition process produces numerous gases that are harmful to the climate. The faster the carcasses are consumed by the vultures, the fewer greenhouse gases escape into the atmosphere. Thus vultures are also guardians of our climate!

different vulture species
© Hristo Peshev/FWFF

Each vulture has its own favourite dish

Five different species of vultures occur in Europe. They specialise in various carcass remains. Since the Rüppell’s vulture, an African species which crossed into Europe only a few years ago, has so far only become firmly established in Spain and is similar to the griffon vulture in its biology, it is not included in the following list.

  • Bearded Vulture

    © Dietmar Nill

    Europe's largest vulture is the bearded vulture. It specialises in bone marrow. Its unusually large oral fissure and special oesophagus help it eat even large bones, and the extremely low pH of its stomach acid facilitates digestion. If bones are too big, the bearded vulture drops them from a great height until they shatter. It also does this with tortoises, at least in the Mediterranean; one of the few examples of vultures hunting living species. The idea that the bearded vulture kills lambs has earned it the name Lammergeier, lambing vulture, but this belongs firmly to the realm of alpine myths. 

  • Cinereous Vulture

    © Hristo Peshev

    Only slightly smaller than the bearded vulture is the Cinereous Vulture. With its powerful beak, it is the vulture for the gristly stuff, specialising in eating skin, tendons and cartilage. Unlike the other European vulture species, Cinereous Vulture breed mainly in trees, and so are endangered by the clearing of large old nest trees. A dense ruff of feathers surrounds their neck, which is vaguely reminiscent of the collar of a monk's habit. Hence the German name monk or cowl vulture.

  • Griffon vulture

    © EBFoto/Deposit

    A long, sparsely feathered neck is a characteristic feature of the griffon vulture, the most common representative of the vultures in Europe. The birds use it to push into the carcass, often via the anal opening. Otherwise, the griffon vulture is also able to tear open the abdominal wall of the dead animal with its beak. It prefers to eat the muscle tissue, innards and soft parts of the carrion. Within the often large flocks of griffon vultures at a carcass, there is a strict hierarchy, but they often have to give way to other scavengers such as jackals or the larger black vultures.

  • Egyptian Vulture

    © 6bears/Deposit

    Although very flexible in its choice of food, the Egyptian Vulture is the most endangered vulture species in Europe, with recent dramatic population declines. It is the only vulture that uses tools, mainly in the form of stones, to break the eggs of other birds. This type of foraging is important for the Egyptian vulture, because it is the last in the queue at the carcass and eats what the others have left behind. It is also the only vulture in Europe to fly south in autumn to spend the cold season in Africa. Conservation measures therefore also need to include the resting and wintering areas.

The author of the article saw vultures in the wild for the first time on a press trip to Bulgaria. This has only served to increase his fascination for these feathered scavengers.

In recent years, EuroNatur has supported several vulture conservation projects in Southern Europe, most recently in the Bulgarian Balkan Mountains. Here are a few links to further information:

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