The bone-picker that was a ghost in Switzerland

The largest bird in the Alps, the bearded vulture was exterminated in the 19th century and is a vulnerable species today. 

Susan Misicka and Julie Hunt

Starting in 1986, bearded vultures were reintroduced in Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France; now there are roughly 200 in the Alps, and the population is doing well. In Switzerland, there are about a dozen breeding pairs. 

It goes by other misnomers like the horse vulture, chamois vulture, or, most commonly, lamb vulture – highlighting the myth that the bird was powerful enough to attack these animals. 

“By the end of the 19th century it was deliberately decimated and finally exterminated in Switzerland for competitive reasons, due to ignorance and because bounties were paid for shooting them,” according to the species profile by the Swiss Ornithological Institute

In fact, the bird is not predatory. It feeds instead on the carrion and even the bones of dead chamois, ibex, and perhaps cattle or sheep that died while out to pasture. Raphaël Arlettaz, head of conservation biology at the University of Bern, is especially fond of bearded vultures. 

“It’s fantastic to observe them because they are very curious – sometimes they fly five to ten metres above your head! Can you imagine a bird with a three-metre wingspan flying so close? I think every Swiss should experience this once in his life, and he will never forget what a bearded vulture is.” 

Bearded vultures mate for life and their mating ritual involves a daring round of in-the-air intercourse that nearly sends them crashing to the ground. Pairs usually raise one fledgling per year.

(Video: SRF/swissinfo.ch/jh)

Weight: 5-7kg

Wingspan: 250-280cm

Food: Carcasses

Where to find: Alpine habitats

Conservation status: Vulnerable

Swiss population: About 12 breeding pairs

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