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Old World Vultures

Some Old World vultures have evolved unusual behaviors that help them with feeding. The lammergeier or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) of Eurasia and Africa is known to drop large bones onto rocks in order to break them open so that they can eat the nutritious, internal marrow. The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is known to pick up stones in its beak, and throw them at ostrich eggs to break them, again so that the contents can be eaten.

Unlike the New World vultures, the Old World vultures lack a perforate nasal septum, and they are generally heavier billed. The Old World vultures have an ancient evolutionary lineage, extending to at least 30 million years, whereas it appears that the American vultures evolved much more recently.

In regions of India, vultures are given access to human corpses within secluded, walled facilities. This custom would seem to be a cultural acknowledgement of the continuity of life and death, and of the relationships of humans with other species and ecosystems.

Old World vultures, unlike their New World counterparts, lack a highly developed sense of smell, and are therefore entirely dependent on their vision to find food. Their dependence on their sense of sight has restricted their range to the open country, and has kept them from making their homes in rainforests like those inhabited by the New World vultures. Representative Old World vultures include the following:

  • Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotus). Largest of the African vultures, and second in size only to the European Black Vulture among Old World vultures.
  • Griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus; also G. bengalensis, G. indicus, G. himaleyensis, G. africanus, G. rueppellii, G. coprotheres). Medium to large-billed resident of Eurasia. Griffins are found chiefly in Spain and the Balkans; in Asia, Iran, the Hindu Kush, and parts of the Himalayas.
  • Lammergeir or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). A handsome bird, rather unlike many of the vultures that many consider repellant. A threatened species in Europe (1989), this vulture maintains healthy populations in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the African highlands. Strychnine used in bait has led to its decline in Europe.
  • Egyptian vulture (Neophron pecnopterus). Small vulture. Resident of Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, southwestern and central Asia, the Himalayas, and India.
  • Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus). Small vulture. Resident of Africa, south of the Sahara.
  • Palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis). Feeds on crabs, molluscs, fish, and the husks of the Oil Palm. Resident of Africa.
  • Indian black vulture (Sarcogyps calvus). Resident of India, the Himalayas, Burma, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, and southern Vietnam.
  • European black vulture (Aegypius monachus). Resident of southern Europe, Afghanistan, Tibet, the Himalayas, and China. Small numbers.
  • White-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis). Resident of southern Africa, south of the Sahara. Scarce.



Ehrlich, Paul R., David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. The Birder's Handbook. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1988.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. Birds in Jeopardy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Forshaw, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Birds. New York: Academic Press, 1998.

Freedman, B. Environmental Ecology. 2nd ed. San Diego: Academic Press, 1994.

Peterson, Roger Tory. North American Birds. Houghton Miflin Interactive (CD-ROM). Somerville, MA: Houghton Miflin, 1995.

Bill Freedman
Randall Frost

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismVultures - Biology Of Vultures, New World Vultures, Old World Vultures