IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
By Nick Lloyd - Home - Contact


A-Z birds in Spain

Lammergeyers or quebrantahuesos (bone breakers) as they are known in Spanish are the largest bird of prey in Eurasia, and Europe's rarest vulture, around 70% of which live in the Aragonese Pyrenees. They feed on marrow which they get by dropping bones repeatedly onto rocks, as their Spanish name aptly suggests. Their old  name in English of ossifrage also refers to this habit. They are also known in English as bearded vultures. This is in reference to the ochre ruff of quills they sport around their necks. They are not born this way, but acquire the colour by actively seeking out iron-rich muds and rubbing their feathers in them. The theory goes that in a stand-off, the redder the feather, the tougher the lammergeyer.

There are some 80 odd pairs in the Pyrenees, 70% of which are in Aragon, which is home to the biggest population in Europe. The number of breeding units (pairs, trios and even foursomes) has risen from some 40 in 1988 to around 80 in 2004. Although this is clearly optimistic, the Pyrenean population has a low genetic diversity . The most serious problem for the bird is poisoning. 42% of unnatural deaths of lammergeyers (20 recorded since 1990) are from poisoned meat put out principally, these days, to kill foxes. The lammergeyer population was decimated in the 20th century by poisoning, much of it due to the mistaken and incredibly widespread belief that they would take young lambs. Lammergeier or Lammergeyer (both correct) comes from the German, lämmergeier, meaning "lamb-vulture", presumably for the same reason. 

The bird appears to back from the brink. It is breaking out of its last stronghold in the Aragonese Pyrenees and has been sited in the the Picos de Europa and the Sistema Central after a 50 year absence. However, studies on the way lammergeyers colonise new areas show that under natural conditions the species would need at least 150 (one hundred and fifty) years to completely re-colonise the Cordillera Cantábrica, the Sistema Ibérico and the Montes Vascos. Therefore, much of the conservation work on lammergeyers is centred on aiding thier expansion.

One imaginative scheme in the Picos de Europa involves building lammergeyer-friendly nests which they can take over, and constructing life-size models of the birds to lure them to cliffs. This seems to have been successful.

A pair of lammergeyers appear to have established themsleves in the Cantabrian Picos de Europa in Liébana fifty years after the species disappeared from these mountains. According to Geraldo Báguena of the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (FCQ), two ADULT individuals have been spotted together at different points in the national park over the last month, which may well mean they have moved in permenantly. They are thought to be a male and female, as two birds of the same sex would be unlikey to tolerate each other for so long, although this is not confirmed. Young lammergeyers are sporadically spotted in the Picos, with 38 sightings in the last three years, but this is the first time that adult birds have decided to stay. The birds have been spotted right next to life-size models of lammergeyers installed by FCQ precisely to attract the birds. It appears that they have been successful. This is a great encouragement for the reintroduction plan which aims to release birds here in 2007, as the sites chosen (feeding stations/life-size models) are being frequented by the couple. Birds are being raised from inviable eggs collected in the Pyrenees. See first hacked lammergeyers to be released in Picos de Europa in 2007. La primera suelta de quebrantahuesos en los Picos se llevará a cabo en 2007 (Comercio Digital)

A recolonsiation programme is also taking place in Andalusia at the Sierra de Cazorla where the bird was last seen in 1986. The first release in Andalusia is set for 2005 from birds from the Guadalentín centre in Cazorla National Park. The centre currently has 24 lammergeyers, including two breeding pairs and three more who have begun nest building.

The female lammergeyer lays one egg, and then a few days later, lays another. The second chick plays the role of a substitute if the first egg fails to hatch. In most cases, the second chick dies, despite the efforts of its parents to feed it: the older sibling is stronger and takes its food. And then, when the right moment arrives it will kill its sister or brother. This is known by biologists as Cainism.. Taking advantage of this, Spanish researchers are to begin an experiment in 2005. The idea is to save some second chicks just after they hatch to create a genetic reserve for future reintroductions and to safeguard against the lammergeyer becoming extinct in the wild. This will be the first time this has been tried with the lammergeyer though the technique has been successful with other birds.

Lammergeyer in legend

An old legend tells that many years ago in the mountains here there was bird capable of plucking lambs from their flocks, and lifting them hundreds of metres up in the air, before dashing them on the rocks below. The bird would then swoop down and feast on their still-warm entrails. Herein the German Lammergeyer - lamb vulture. Some said they had seen these massive birds do the same with young children. Others still, claimed they were partial to the adult human flesh of climbers, who when out looking for eggs on the crags, would be knocked off by these birds and fall to their deaths. Old wives' tales. Lammergeyers only eat carrion.

Another legend asserts that the Greek playwright Aeschylus was killed by a tortoise dropped on his bald head by a Lammergeyer which mistook it for a stone.

Gypaetus barbatus - Quebrantahuesos (Sp), Trencalòs (Cat), Ugatza  (Basque), Clunchigüesos (Aragonese, great word and utterly useless)

The ever strange Bible specifically prohibits their eating.
And these you shall not eat are: the nesher (Griffon vulture), and the peres (lammergeier) and the 'ozniyah (lappet faced vulture). And the ra-ah(??) ayah (honey buzzard)and the dayah(kite) species. And all of the 'orev (raven/crow) species. And the bat haya'anah(ostrich) and the tahmas(??) and the shahaf (seagull) and the netz(hawk) species. And the kos (little owl) and the yanshuf (long-eared owl) and the tinshemet (barn owl). And the ka-at(a kind of desert bird?) and the rahma (Egyptian vulture) and the shlakh (osprey). And the hasida (stork) and the anafa (heron) species and the dukhifat (hoopoe) and the bat ."(Deuteronomy 14:12-19).  From this site .


See also News on Birds in Spain

alpine accentor - alpine swift - aquatic warbler - arctic skua -arctic tern - Atlantic puffin - Audouin's gull - avocet - azure-winged magpie