Did You Know?
• Egyptian Vultures are one of the few bird species known to use tools! Apart from using smooth stones to break into eggs, they have also been observed using sticks to gather and roll wool, which they then use as a lining in their nests.
• The Egyptian Vulture's scientific name is Neophron percnopterus. Neophron is an unsavory character in Greek Mythology who the gods turned into a vulture as punishment for his wicked ways. The latter half of the name is said to come from combining two Greek words: perknos, which means "dark", and pteros, which you may have guessed, means "winged."
• Vultures played an important role in Egyptian culture, including being represented in hieroglyphics, and as a representation of royalty.
• There are at least three different subspecies of Egyptian Vulture that scientists have identified.
• Iran and Turkey are of primary importance for breeding populations of this species
How The Peregrine Fund is Helping
The Peregrine Fund was the first conservation organization to set up supplementary feeding stations or “vulture restaurants” in South Asia. "Vulture restaurants" are where biologists set out carcasses that had never been treated with Diclofenac so they are safe for vultures to eat. We also do a number of other important things to help protect vultures such as working to support local students, working with communities to educate them about the importance of vultures, and continuing to monitor the populations to help us understand if populations are stable, rising or going down, and many other exciting things.
The Peregrine Fund also helps support vultures worldwide by promoting and celebrating International Vulture Awareness Day, which is the first Saturday in September each year. You can help by celebrating this day on your own by going out and watching vultures in your area, or by encouraging others in your family, school or neighborhood to celebrate too!
Where They Live
If you had to guess where a bird called "Egyptian Vulture" might live, odds are pretty good that you would say Egypt, right? And, well, you would be correct... sort of. Though its name might imply that it is found only in Egypt, the Egyptian Vulture can be found over a very wide geographical range. In fact, it is found on three different continents! This somewhat cosmopolitan vulture lives in parts of Southern Europe including Greece, France, Italy, Bulgaria and Spain. Its range extends into the Middle East including the countries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It also inhabits parts of central Asia, Pakistan, India and Nepal, and areas of north Africa, where it can be found in many countries including Morocco, Egypt, Chad, Niger, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Small populations are also found in southern Africa in Namibia and Angola. Populations also live on the Canary and Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic Ocean and the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean.
The Egyptian Vulture is not what you would call a forest-dwelling species. Quite the opposite, in fact. This vulture inhabits arid (dry) and semi-arid habitats, including deserts, grasslands, and savannas, which are often dotted with scrub or bushes. It particularly likes canyons and rocky areas. Like the Black Vulture of the New World, The Egyptian Vulture isn't shy about taking up residence near human-occupied villages and, just like the Black Vulture, can sometimes be seen foraging or soaring along or near roads, or in flocks gathered at some bird species' favorite "restaurants" - garbage dumps.
Egyptian Vultures are considered partial migrants - meaning that individuals living in some part of the species' range migrate, while others remain in one general area all year round.
What They Do
Adult Egyptian Vultures might rival the New World’s King Vulture as one of the most beautiful of all the vulture species. The Egyptian Vulture has a whitish head, back and chest. Its wings are also mostly white, but its black primary and secondary feathers make for a lovely contrast of color. It has a bright yellow face, dark, curious eyes, and its beak may vary in color from slate-grey to pale yellow. As in many bird species, adults have different color variations and patterns (known as plumage) than young birds of the same species. The Egyptian Vulture is no exception. Young Egyptian Vultures go through about 4 years of molting (or replacing feathers) before they reach adult plumage or coloration. Though the differences can be subtle and sometimes complex, generally speaking, a juvenile Egyptian vulture has very dark feathers over most of its body. Each year, the young vulture's feathers grow in a bit lighter than the previous year, until it reaches adulthood and is nearly completely white.
After an individual Egyptian Vulture reaches adulthood, it will continue to molt each year, but the new feathers that come in will retain the same pattern. Curiously, scientists have noticed a difference in the degree of white on the feathers of adults in the wild versus captive Egyptian Vultures. Individuals living in zoos most often have bright, almost snow-white feathers, while adults in the wild have feathers that appear rustier or buffer in color. Some believe that the vultures actually use mud or soil that is rich in iron to dampen the brightness of their feathers in the wild!
Generally speaking, Egyptian Vultures spend a lot of time soaring on thermals with other species, as they search for food.
Egyptian Vultures are famous in the bird world as one of the few birds that regularly use tools for cracking open the enormous and thick-shelled eggs of ostriches. Keep on reading to learn more!
Why They Need our Help
Not too long ago, the Egyptian Vulture was considered to be fairly common and widespread throughout most of its range in Europe, Asia, and the dry parts of Africa north of the equator. However, it is with a heavy heart that we must report this is no longer the case. Where once this species was relatively plentiful, it has now become quite scarce. This is likely due to multiple reasons, including poisoning, electrocution, collisions with wind turbines, human persecution and ingesting lead when feeding on carcasses of animals that had been shot with lead bullets. Despite all of these threats, however, the Egyptian Vulture was holding on, but things took a turn for the worse several years ago.
Sadly, this species was recently uplisted to "Endangered" by BirdLife International meaning that it is in trouble and is in danger of disappearing from the wild. This uplisting occurred when the Egyptian Vulture population crashed dramatically throughout much of its range. This crash could have been caused, in great part, by their consumption of livestock contaminated with the veterinary drug, Diclofenac. Diclofenac is a non-steroidal anti inflammatory drug that people give their livestock (cattle, donkeys) when they fall ill. Though diclofenac may help their animals feel better for a little while, eventually the animals will get sick again. When the cow or donkey that has been treated with this drug dies, the diclofenac remains in their system. When vultures feed on the remains of these animals, they unknowingly swallow meat and tissue that contains traces of this drug along with their meal. The diclofenac poisons the vultures, which makes them very sick. Many of them die because their kidneys fail.
In 2003, The Peregrine Fund first discovered the catastrophic relationship between diclofenac and declining vulture populations in south Asia. Thankfully, the drug was banned for veterinary use in 2006 by India, Pakistan and Nepal, and Bangladesh took similar action in 2010. Sadly, despite the ban, diclofenac is still widely available in some parts of these countries and other drugs with similar effects are also still on the market.
Biologists and conservationists are working hard to protect this species, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Apart from the direct or indirect threats posed by humans, Egyptian Vultures also face threats from other wildlife species. For example, in Spain, researchers showed that eagle-owls were predating on Egyptian Vulture nestlings - killing young as old as 35 days or more! Young vultures are also susceptible to Golden Eagles and even foxes looking for their next meal.
What They Eat
The Egyptian Vulture has been described as an "indiscriminate and opportunistic feeder" (Snow 1978), which is a nice way of saying that it will eat just about anything it can get its beak on. It might feed side by side with other vulture species on large carcasses or it might scavenge for garbage, especially old vegetable matter, in and around human settlements.
The Egyptian Vulture is also known to feed on the eggs of large bird species such as flamingos, pelicans and ostriches. Now, while eating eggs is pretty common in many bird species, what isn't common is just how this vulture eats them. To break the eggs to get to the tasty yolk inside, Egyptian Vultures will use stones to crack the eggs - picking up stone after stone and dropping them onto the egg until it cracks! This is definitely a clever, tool-using bird if there ever was one! If an Egyptian Vulture doesn't have any stones around, or decides it wants to crack the eggshell in another way, it will pick up the egg in its beak and throw it onto the ground to break it.
Egyptian Vultures are also known to eat small mammals, reptiles, and fecal matter (which is a fancy word for poop) - including that of humans. While this might seem gross to us, scientists believe that carotenoids found in the poop actually add to the bright yellow or orange pigments in their faces. And, Egyptian Vultures aren't the only ones. There are a number of species that feed on poop, and there is actually a name for it - coprophagia. Egyptian Vultures also eat insects and other invertebrates.
When gathered around a large carcass, which can attract a whole host of scavengers, Egyptian Vultures usually have to wait until the larger, more dominant vulture species have finished feeding before they get their turn. But, the good news is that this species isn't as dependent on finding large carcasses as other vulture species. Because their diet is so varied, and they combine foraging with active hunting of small animals, this species has plenty of food to choose from. This beautiful vulture hunts for food while soaring high in the sky or from a strategic perch, usually on rocky outcroppings.
Nest, Eggs, and Young
The Egyptian Vulture is generally a solitary nester, which means a single pair places its nest at a reasonable distance from another nesting pair of the same species. However, this species is known to sometimes nest in loose colonies - small groups of other nesting Egyptian Vultures or with other vulture species, such as the Eurasian Griffon Vulture.
When breeding season starts, the male and female will participate in courtship behavior, which involves some impressive aerial displays of swooping and diving. Though pairs are generally monogamous - meaning one male and one female stay together for at least an entire breeding season, if not for longer - scientists have noted that individuals will sometimes copulate with more than one mate in the same season. In fact, though it hasn't been documented with much frequency, biologists studying this species noticed that sometimes one female will mate with two males in the same season and all three individuals will work together to raise the young. Other bird species exhibit this behavior as well, most notably the Galapagos Hawk.
Egyptian Vultures build their nests in a variety of different places, including on rock ledges, in caves, dirt banks, in trees and sometimes even directly on the ground. Their nests look like a hodgepodge of medium to large sticks, which they line with different materials such as grass, wool, animal hairs, and other material. Egyptian Vultures often use the same nesting sites year after year. Female vultures will lay 1-3 eggs, which are splotched reddish-brown. Both the male and the female will share incubation duties, until the chicks hatch at about 39-45 days. The chicks grow quickly and after about 3 months they are ready to leave the nest. However, even after they have learned to fly they will remain with their parents for a period of time. Once they are completely independent of their parents, they will quickly leave the nest territory and begin to forage on their own, often traveling very far from their original home.
Egyptian Vulture and The World Center for Birds of Prey
The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about birds of prey. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets and quizzes to costumes and a touch table are available for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-round, including California Condors and a Turkey Vulture. Come for a visit, where our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about Egyptian Vultures or other birds of prey. If you are in Boise at the beginning of September, get in touch with our education crew at the Velma Morrison Interpretive Center to learn about International Vulture Awareness Day activities.
Global Raptor Information Network. 2021. Species account: Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 6 Aug. 2021
Orta, J., G. M. Kirwan, D. A. Christie, E. F. J. Garcia, and J. S. Marks (2020). Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.egyvul1.01