Introduction

Egyptian vulture in flight – Image © Bruno Berthémy
 

Classification

  • English name: Egyptian vulture (also known as: white scavenger vulture, Pharaoh’s chicken)
  • Latin name: Neophron percnopterus
  • Subphylum: Vertebrata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Accipitriformes
  • Family: Accipitridae
  • Genus: Neophron
  • Species: percnopterus

Egyptian vultures belong to the Neophron genus that comprises three subspecies that are differentiated by their distribution:
Neophron percnopterus percnopterus is the nominal subspecies found in the western Palaearctic of southern Europe and northern Africa as well as the Afrotropic ecozone;
Neophron percnopterus ginginianus, which is found in Asia, except in the north-west and Nepal. This subspecies is smaller and has a yellow beak;
Neophron percnopterus majorensis is found in the Canary Islands (Donazar et al., 2001).

 

Description

Wingspan: 160 - 180 cm.
Length: 53 - 65 cm.
Weight: 2 - 2,5 kg.
Sexual dimorphism: In reproductive periods, males’ faces can become more orange-coloured.
Voice: Juvenile birds: ‘piipiipii piipiipii’ (heard during ringing). Adult birds: Generally quiet: ‘gigigigigigigi’. click here. to hear a male's call. Click here to hear the call of a nesting pair.
Life span: Around 30 years.
Characteristics: The smallest of the vultures found in Europe. Migratory (Sub-Sahelian Africa). Excellent flying ability.
Habitat: Rocky and bare landscapes. Nests in openings in steep cliffs.
Breeding: Reaches adulthood in 5-6 years.
Pairs for life.
1 to 3 eggs laid between the end of March and the beginning of April.
Incubation lasts around 42 days, with both parents incubating eggs.
The 1 or 2 chicks remain in the nest for 90 to 95 days.
Food: Eats carrion and often excrement, dead animals found in exposed areas and insects. Often visits waste sites, landfill areas, etc.
Identification:

  • Adult birds: Colours: White body and wings, black trailing edge on wings, yellow-orange head.
    Beak: Yellow, ends in a sharply curved black point.
  • Young birds: Colours: Whole body is dark brown, brown-grey head, large eyes with blue-violet eyelids.
    Beak: Thick and greyish, already sharply pointed.
 

Distribution

Western Palaearctic:

Generally found in all countries along the Mediterranean Basin. Egyptian vultures can nest across a large section of Africa, north of the equator, in the Arabic Peninsula and in south-western and southern Asia, where the subspecies Neophron percnopterus ginginianus is found.

Egyptian vultures, then, are found in the following countries:
France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Moldavia, Romania, Ukraine, Greece, Russia, Georgia, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. In the Arabic Peninsula, they recorded in Oman and Yemen.
They have also been recorded in Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, southern Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan (Asia Minor), as well as Pakistan and India, in the form of the ginginianus subspecies.

In Europe

Spain emerges as one of the most significant refuge areas for Egyptian vultures with some 1,700 to 1,900 pairs recorded there.

In France, around 80 territorial pairs (82 territorial pairs and 67 reproductive pairs in 2009) are spread across two distinct geographical areas:

  • The western Pyrenees, which are home to the highest concentration of Egyptian vultures (around 75% of the population’s pairs) and in which the individual birds are in contact with the Spanish populations to the south of the massif;
  • The Mediterranean area (around 25% of the population’s pairs) which extends from the Hérault department to that of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.

While the population in the Pyrenees forms the northern fringe of the Iberian group, the Mediterranean community remained isolated for a long time, after the extinction of the pairs that were previously found in the eastern Pyrenees and the massifs of the Languedoc area (Egyptian vultures were formerly found throughout the Pyrenees, with populations that stretched from Perpignan to Menton, occupying the whole of the Rhône Valley). As of 2007, a pair of Egyptian vultures have been given a home in the Pyrénées-Orientales department, with support provided for reproductive pairs in the Aude department – as a result, the species has now not only returned to its traditional sites on the northern side of the Pyrenees, but Egyptian vulture populations also form a continuous chain from the Pyrenees to the south-east Mediterranean.
 

 

Migration

As winter approaches, food becomes scarcer, which is why Egyptian vultures, like a number of birds of prey, prefer to migrate to more temperate areas. European Egyptian vultures winter south of the Sahara. Argos transmitters fitted to young birds in the Luberon thus provided an accurate insight into where they wintered, at a site lying on the border of Mauritania and Mali.
Birds coming from the Balkans and Italy seem to choose to cross the Mediterranean via Cap Bon in Tunisia. French and Spanish birds prefer to fly over the strait of Gibraltar towards Morocco. Birds that are further east cross the Bosphorus as well as the Dardanelles before continuing across Israel to get to their wintering sites in Ethiopia and eastern Africa. Egyptian vultures that winter in eastern and southern Africa follow the Bab-el-Mandeb strait, to the south-west of Yemen.
Like other birds of prey, Egyptian vultures prefer to migrate during the day, taking advantage of the thermodynamic conditions that are needed in soaring. In addition, the species appears to be somewhat reticent before taking off for sea crossings. It is always difficult for large soaring birds (such as birds of prey and storks) to fly over vast stretches of water, as these do not offer enough thermals. The different migration corridors outlined above illustrate this behaviour.
Post-breeding migration mainly takes place at the end of August and in September, while pre-breeding migration lasts from the end of January to April. After breeding, Egyptian vultures migrate towards the end of August or the start of September. As a result, the birds leave their winter homes to return to France at some point between the end of February and the beginning of March (pre-breeding migration). Egyptian vultures in the Canary Islands and on Minorca are sedentary.

 

Population sizes

Western Palaearctic: Estimated population of between 5,000 and 12,000 pairs.
France: cf. Monitoring breeding

 

 

Legal protection

Egyptian vultures are protected across the whole of France under the Loi de protection de la Nature [Wildlife Protection Law] of July 1976 and the Arrêté [Governmental Order] of 17th April 1981. In addition, it is listed in Annex I of the Birds Directive (79/409/EEC of 6th April 1979). This European Directive has applied to all the Community’s member states since 6th April 1981. It aims to ensure that that all species of bird listed in Annex I of the same directive are protected and it enables Special Protection Areas to be identified as a means of strengthening the Natura 2000 Network.
Egyptian vultures also feature in Appendix II of the Berne Convention, the objective of which is to ensure that wild flora, fauna and natural habitats are preserved at a European level, especially those species and habitats that require the cooperation of several states in order to be preserved. Particular emphasis is given to any species, including migratory species, that are endangered and vulnerable, as are Egyptian vultures. In addition, as a migratory species, the Bonn Convention (Council Decision 82/461/CEE of 24th June 1982) grants Egyptian vultures an international conservation status. Like all endangered species of wild flora and fauna, Egyptian vultures are protected by CITES, also known as the Washington Convention. This ‘Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ is an international intergovernmental agreement that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species from which they come.
As of May 2007, Egyptians vultures are labelled an endangered species on the Red List produced by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). They are listed in the CMAP 1 (Species of Conservation Concern) group that includes all internationally endangered species. In Europe, they also feature in the SPEC 3 group that covers all species with an unfavourable conservation status in Europe, of which the majority of the international population is outside Europe.

 

Etymology

Adapted from L’étymologie des noms d’oiseaux [The Etymology of Birds’ Names] by Pierre Cabard and Bernard Chauvet and published by Eveil éditeur.

In antiquity…

Neophron.
According to Greek mythology, the story of Neophron is as follows:
Timandre, the lover of Aegypius, has a son called Neophron. Neophron, envious of Aegypius, decides to take revenge on him and arranges for him to mistakenly believe that he is with his mistress in order for the poor man to bed his own mother, Antheus. An enraged Bulis, Neophron’s father, informed of the scandal, seeks to pull out his son’s eyes.
Zeus, however, takes pity on all the humans and changes them into birds: Aegypius and Neophron into vultures, Bulis into a diver and Timandre into a tit.

Percnopterus.
This qualifier is formed of two Greek roots:
perknos = dark, black.
pteron = wing.
We have to admit that this is ideally suited to describing the distinctive black trailing edges of Egyptian vultures’ wings.
The expression ‘percnopterus eagle’ even appears in Aristotle.

Egypt

While these vultures do not live only in Egypt, they were highly venerated by Egyptians in ancient times.
The Egyptian vulture was the symbol of the goddess Mut.
Mut means ‘mother’ and is the reason why the queen mother of the pharaoh had a crown that represented a stylized Egyptian vulture.

…and in different languages from around the world:

  • German: Schmutzgeier.
  • French: Vautour percnoptère.
  • Arabic: Al rakhama el Mesria.
  • Béarnese: Marie-blanque.
  • Basque: Behi bideko ematze zuria (‘the white lady from the cows’ path’) or sai zuria (‘the white vulture’).
  • Danish: Ådsegrilb.
  • Spanish: Alimoche.
  • English: Egyptian vulture.
  • Greek: Asproparis.
  • Hebrew: Raham.
  • Italian: Capovaccaio.
  • Kabyle: Isr'i.
  • Provençal: Capoun fer or peyre blanc.
  • Dutch: Aasgier.
  • Swedish: Smutsgam.

Birds of prey that feed on carrion, Egyptian vultures play a distinctive role as natural refuse collectors. Egyptian vultures can be found in France, in the Pyrenees and the south-eastern Mediterranean.

 

Breeding

Egyptian vultures reach sexual maturity at around 4, 5 or even 6 years old. Egyptian vultures’ development is characterized by a long adult life, significant parental care of juvenile offspring and a low number of offspring that reach flying age being produced.

Pairing

In March and April, Egyptian vultures, returning from their winter homes, perform display flights characterized by paired acrobatics with tightened talons.
Egyptian vultures are faithful, pairing for life, although a very small number of cases of polygyny have been reported. Pairs are thus already formed when the birds migrate.
Solitary individuals pair between the end of March and April. Both partners prepare the nesting site, usually located on a rock face, by collecting and putting together natural plant and synthetic fibres, pieces of wood, etc.
Egyptian vultures can be seen pairing at ground level in rocky areas not far from their breeding grounds.

Breeding ground

Dans les Pyrénées, il construit ses aires de nidification entre 400 et 1 300 m d’altitude alors, qu’en Provence, il les installe entre 130 à 950 m.
Le nid est composé de débris divers : branches sèches, chiffons, laine et déchets (plastiques, papiers...).
La coupe du nid est rechargée régulièrement par les futurs parents, pendant et après l’incubation.
En France, la ponte a lieu approximativement durant la seconde quinzaine d’avril. Durant cette période, la femelle assure seule la couvaison.

Laying and incubation

On average, female Egyptian vultures lay two eggs, with a period of roughly 3-4 days between each.
Each egg is incubated for an average of 39 to 45 days and the parents take successive turns in the nest, changing at least once a day.

Raising chicks

From the end of May, the first chicks appear. They already have the use of their visual and auditory faculties. Their parents are attentive and bring them food in the form of regurgitated prey. Once the chicks are more than 35 days old, they are able to feed themselves on prey that has been dismembered and torn into pieces.
When there are two chicks in the same brood, they develop differently, one of the two dominating the other.
Once the chicks can fly, around 2.5 months after hatching, the parents continue to feed them for roughly 35 days, stopping shortly after post-breeding migration. The offspring can be seen migrating with or separately from their parents.

 

Diet

Egyptian vultures, like all vultures, eat carrion: they feed on dead animals. They do have thin beaks, though, which do not allow them to pierce the hides of large mammals, as larger vultures can. Egyptian vultures’ choice is thus limited to softer body parts. The birds also have a broader diet which leads them to capture living prey or even to feed on organic waste (excrement). Given the opportunity, they can catch reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and small mammals as well as birds.

In this cartoon, the Egyptian vulture’s speech bubble reads ‘I am the cleverest of all’. A label tells us that the object of the bird’s attention is an ostrich egg.
Distinguishing feature
:
Egyptian vultures are able to use stones to break the shells of large eggs when they want to get to the contents of these.
When ringing a young Egyptian vulture in the Alpilles in July 2001, the ringer was surprized to find 8 golf balls in the nest. These balls had been collected by the parents of the young bird from nearby golf courses. They probably mistook the balls for eggs…

Egyptian vultures seek food early in the morning and late in the afternoon, surveying their territories from the air, flying at either high or low altitude. They also look for food by exploring territories at ground level, or by watching from a single vantage point.
They are opportunistic birds that are closely associated with the presence of pastoral farms and animal carcasses and waste.
More broadly, the existence of Egyptian vultures is dependent on human activity. Indeed, changes in land use, partly as a result of rural flight as well as the fact that certain traditional practices are no longer used (farming = loss of habitats and trophic resources), account for some of the factors that have led to Egyptian vultures’ vulnerable status. In the same way, the unreasonable use of chemical (phytosanitary) products to protect crops and limit the development of animal species that are considered ‘pests’ is the cause of the death of a large number of vultures and birds of prey more generally, poisoning their food chains.

 

Habitat use

Home range

Egyptian vultures’ home range changes according to the density of Egyptian vulture populations, the availability of food resources and the number of potential sites for establishing homes. It is defined as all the habitats to which a bird is closely associated in order to meet its essential growth and development needs.
Home range includes not only a bird’s breeding ground, but also its broader hunting territory and the land in which it seeks food. It can vary significantly (around 1,000 km2 in Provence and around 75 km2 in the Pyrenees).

Location

Egyptian vultures are generally rock-dwelling birds that are fond of outcrops, cliffs and rocky enclaves. They prefer open spaces (flat bare countryside, pastoral land and plains) in which they can easily look for food. In Spain as well as France, they favour livestock (sheep or goats) routes as locations for seeking food. If necessary, they will also use feeding areas that have been created for them or spontaneously take advantage of refuse sites.
As with most living things, the presence of Egyptian vultures in our countryside is dependent on a healthy environment. If the main factor in the decline of a species is the transformation and destruction of its habitats, we must therefore manage harmful sources and should leave nature to evolve at its own pace. Because Egyptian vultures are a rare and vulnerable species, we need to create protection and conservation schemes in order to ensure that Egyptian vulture populations can survive and develop.

 

Behaviour

Within a territory

There seems to be a hierarchy within an Egyptian vulture brood that takes the form of older chicks dominating the younger ones as regards sources of food. When there is no food and there are a number of vultures within the same territory, younger chicks can move to a different territory and then be adopted and fed by another pair.

With other species

When a carcass is dismembered, Egyptian vultures participate alongside other species of vulture. While they are not often exposed to the risks of competing for food, then, their small size hinders them when seeking to obtain food in the company of other vultures that are larger than them. More assertive than corvids, however, they can appear aggressive in order to protect their food. Birds such as jackdaws have nevertheless been seen skilfully stealing prey from the talons or beaks of Egyptian vulture’s mid-flight. Other forms of pillaging take place in Egyptian vultures’ nests: food, eggs and even Egyptian vulture chicks are stolen either by neighbouring Egyptian vulture pairs or other bird and mammal species.
Egyptian vultures are territorial birds that defend their territory against any intrusion, especially during nesting periods. However, the territories of different pairs often overlap.

 

The main threats

In the western Palaearctic, specialists have observed a decrease in Egyptian vulture population sizes that began in the twentieth century. While Egyptian vulture populations have remained stable in France since around 1970, threats do remain.

The decline of Egyptian vultures, as with other species, is not the result of a single phenomenon, but represents a combination of events and factors:

  • The degradation and destruction of their preferred habitats, caused by pastoral practices stopping as well as changes in land use.
  • Changes in pastoral practices (sheep, goats) lead to a decrease in the availability of carcasses of domesticated animals. The fact that sheep and goat transhumance near the Alpine massifs and the Massif Central in Provence has stopped is probably largely responsible for Egyptian vulture populations in Provence moving 200 km further south and 130 km further west.
  • The emergence of toxic products which are designed to kill animals that are labelled as crop ‘pests’ or that are likely to compete with humans’ activities (rodents, small and large carnivores) and treatments given to herds and flocks (fighting external and internal parasites with non-biodegradable toxic products). These products poison and kill young vultures as well as adults.
  • The direct destruction of eggs, young Egyptian vultures and adults (for collections, hunting, poison, etc.). Every year, Egyptian vultures are killed in this way across a large section of their area of distribution.
  • The degradation of food networks leads to a decrease in food resources for Egyptian vultures.
  • Deaths connected to linear infrastructures and wind networks (collisions and electrocutions).

To find out more… click on this website’s threats page.