Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), also called the white
scavenger vulture or pharaoh's chicken, is a small
Old World vulture
and the only member of the genus Neophron. It is widely distributed;
Egyptian vulture is found from southwestern
Europe and northern
Africa to India. The contrasting underwing pattern and wedge-shaped
tail make it distinctive in flight as it soars in thermals during the
warmer parts of the day. Egyptian vultures feed mainly on carrion but
are opportunistic and will prey on small mammals, birds, and reptiles.
They also feed on the eggs of other birds, breaking larger ones by
tossing a large pebble onto them. The use of tools is rare in birds
and apart from the use of a pebble as a hammer, Egyptian vultures also
use twigs to roll up wool for use in their nest. Egyptian vultures
that breed in the temperate regions migrate south in winter while
tropical populations are relatively sedentary. Populations of this
species have declined in the 20th century and some island populations
are endangered by hunting, accidental poisoning, and collision with
1 Taxonomy and systematics
3 Distribution and movements
4 Behaviour and ecology
4.2 Tool use
5 Threats and conservation
6 In culture
8 External links
Taxonomy and systematics
Egyptian vulture was first formally described by the Swedish
Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the tenth edition of his Systema
Naturae under the binomial name Vultur percnopterus. The current
genus Neophron contains only a single species. A few prehistoric
species from the
Neogene period in
North America placed in the genus
Neophrontops (the name meaning "looks like Neophron") are believed to
have been very similar to these vultures in lifestyle, but the genetic
relationships are unclear. The genus Neophron is considered to
represent the oldest branch within the evolutionary tree of
vultures. Along with its nearest evolutionary relative, the
lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), they are sometimes placed in a
separate subfamily, the Gypaetinae.
There are three widely recognised subspecies of the Egyptian vulture,
although there is considerable gradation due to movement and
intermixing of the populations. The nominate subspecies, N. p.
percnopterus, has the largest range, occurring in southern Europe,
northern Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the north-west of
India. Populations breeding in the temperate zone migrate south during
winter. It has a dark grey bill.
N. p. ginginianus in flight, India
The Indian subcontinent is the range of subspecies N. p. ginginianus,
the smallest of the three subspecies, which is identifiable by a pale
yellow bill. The subspecies name is derived from
India where the French explorer
Pierre Sonnerat described it
as Le Vautour de Gingi and it was given a Latin name by John Latham in
his Index Ornithologicus (1790).
A small population that is found only in the eastern Canary Islands
was found to be genetically distinct and identified as a new
subspecies, N. p. majorensis in 2002. Known locally as the guirre they
are genetically more distant from N. p. percnopterus, significantly
greater even than N. p. ginginianus is from N. p. percnopterus. Unlike
neighbouring populations in
Africa and southern Europe, it is
non-migratory and consistently larger in size. The subspecies name
majorensis is derived from "Majorata", the ancient name for the island
of Fuerteventura. The island was named by Spanish conquerors in the
15th century after the "Majos", the main native Guanche tribe
there. One study in 2010 suggested that the species established
on the island about 2,500 years ago when the island was first
colonized by humans.
Nikolai Zarudny and Härms described a subspecies, rubripersonatus,
Baluchistan in 1902. This was described as having a deeper
reddish orange skin on the head and a yellow-tipped dark bill.
This has rarely been considered a valid subspecies but the
intermediate pattern of bill colouration suggests intermixing of
The genus name is derived from Greek mythology. Timandra was the
mother of Neophron. Aegypius was a friend of Neophron and about the
same age. It upset Neophron to know that his mother Timandra was
having a love affair with Aegypius. Seeking revenge, Neophron made
advances towards Aegypius' mother, Bulis. Neophron succeeded and
enticed Bulis into entering the dark chamber where his mother and
Aegypius were to meet soon. Neophron then distracted his mother,
tricking Aegypius into entering the chamber and sleeping with his own
mother Bulis. When Bulis discovered the deception she gouged out the
eyes of her son Aegypius before killing herself. Aegypius prayed for
revenge and Zeus, on hearing the prayer, changed Aegypius and Neophron
into vultures. "Percnopterus" is derived from Greek for "black
wings": "περκνóς" (perknos, meaning "blue-black") and
πτερόν (pteron, meaning wing).
Adult N. percnopterus in captivity showing white plumage.
The adult's plumage is white, with black flight feathers in the wings.
Wild birds usually appear soiled with a rusty or brown shade to the
white plumage, derived from mud or iron-rich soil. Captive specimens
without access to soil have clean white plumage. It has been
suggested as a case of cosmetic colouration. The bill is slender
and long, and the tip of the upper mandible is hooked. The nostril is
an elongated horizontal slit. The neck feathers are long and form a
hackle. The wings are pointed, with the third primary being the
longest; the tail is wedge shaped. The legs are pink in adults and
grey in juveniles. The claws are long and straight, and the third
and fourth toes are slightly webbed at the base.
The bill is black in the nominate subspecies but pale or yellowish in
adults of the smaller Indian ginginianus. Rasmussen and Anderton
(2005) suggest that this variation may need further study,
particularly due to the intermediate black-tipped bill described in
rubripersonatus. The facial skin is yellow and unfeathered
down to the throat. The sexes are indistinguishable in plumage but
breeding males have a deeper orange facial skin colour than
females. Females average slightly larger and are about 10–15%
heavier than males. Young birds are blackish or chocolate brown
with black and white patches. The adult plumage is attained only
after about five years.
31–34 mm (1.2–1.3 in)
470–536 mm (18.5–21.1 in)
460–545 mm (18.1–21.5 in)
220–251 mm (8.7–9.9 in)
240–267 mm (9.4–10.5 in)
75–87 mm (3.0–3.4 in)
1,600–2,400 g (56.4–84.7 oz)
393–490 mm (15.5–19.3 in)
455–505 mm (17.9–19.9 in)
228–251 mm (9.0–9.9 in)
72–85 mm (2.8–3.3 in)
485–554 mm (19.1–21.8 in)
240–285 mm (9.4–11.2 in)
73.5–93 mm (2.9–3.7 in)
1,900–2,850 g (67.0–100.5 oz)
Egyptian vulture measures 47–65 centimetres
(19–26 in) from the point of the beak to the extremity of the
tail feathers. In the smaller N. p. ginginianus males are about
47–52 centimetres (19–20 in) long while females are 52–55.5
centimetres (20.5–21.9 in) long. The wingspan is about 2.7
times the body length. Birds from Spain weigh about 1.9 kilograms
(4.2 lb) while birds of the Canary Island subspecies majorensis,
representing a case of island gigantism, are heavier with an average
weight of 2.4 kilograms (5.3 lb).
Distribution and movements
N. p. percnopterus in flight (Israel).
Egyptian vultures are widely distributed across the
Old World with
their breeding range from southern
Europe to northern
Africa east to
western and southern Asia. They are rare vagrants in Sri Lanka.
They occur mainly on the dry plains and lower hills. In the Himalayas,
they go up to about 2,000 metres (6,600 ft) in summer. In
Armenia, breeding pairs have been found up to 2,300 meters a.s.l.
European populations migrate south to
Africa in winter. Vagrants may
occur as far south as in South
Africa although they bred in the
Transkei region prior to 1923. They nest mainly on rocky cliffs,
sometimes adopting ledges on tall buildings in cities and on large
Most Egyptian vultures in the subtropical zone of
Europe migrate south
Africa in winter. Like many other large soaring migrants, they
avoid making long crossings over water. Italian birds cross
over through Sicily and into Tunisia making short sea crossings by
passing through the islands of
Marettimo and Pantelleria. Those
that migrate through the
Iberian Peninsula cross into
Africa over the
Strait of Gibraltar
Strait of Gibraltar while others cross further east through the
Levant. In summer, some African birds fly further north
Europe and vagrants have been recorded in England and
Migrating birds can sometimes cover 500 kilometres (310 mi) in a
single day until they reach the southern edge of the Sahara, 3,500 to
5,500 kilometres (2,200 to 3,400 mi) from their summer home.
Young birds that have not reached breeding age may overwinter in the
grassland and semi-desert regions of the Sahel.
Behaviour and ecology
N. p. ginginianus in flight
Egyptian vulture is usually seen singly or in pairs, soaring in
thermals along with other scavengers and birds of prey, or perched on
the ground or atop a building. On the ground, they walk with a
waddling gait. They feed on a range of food, including mammal
faeces (including those of humans), insects in dung, carrion,
vegetable matter, and sometimes small animals. When it joins other
vulture species at a dead animal, it tends to stay on the periphery
and waits until the larger species leave. Wild rabbits
(Oryctolagus cuniculus) form a significant part of the diet of Spanish
vultures. In the Iberian Peninsula, landfills are an important
food source, with the vultures more likely to occupy territories close
to landfill sites. Studies suggest that they feed on ungulate
faeces to obtain carotenoid pigments responsible for their bright
yellow and orange facial skin. The ability to assimilate carotenoid
pigments may serve as a reliable signal of fitness.
Egyptian vultures are mostly silent but make high-pitched mewing or
hissing notes at the nest and screeching noises when squabbling at a
carcass. Young birds have been heard making a hissing croak in
flight. They also hiss or growl when threatened or angry.
Egyptian vultures roost communally on large trees, buildings or on
cliffs. Roost sites are usually chosen close to a dump site or
other suitable foraging area. In Spain and Morocco, summer roosts
are formed mainly by immature birds. The favourite roost trees tended
to be large dead pines. The number of adults at the roost
increases towards June. It is thought that breeding adults may be able
to forage more efficiently by joining the roost and following others
to the best feeding areas. Breeding birds that failed to raise young
may also join the non-breeding birds at the roost during June.
Museum Wiesbaden collection
The breeding season is in spring. During the beginning of the
breeding season, courting pairs soar high together and one or both may
make steep spiralling or swooping dives. The birds are monogamous
and pair bonds may be maintained for more than one breeding season and
the same nest sites may be reused each year. The nest is an untidy
platform of twigs lined with rags and placed on a cliff ledge,
building, or the fork of a large tree. Old nest platforms of eagles
may also be taken over. Nests placed on the ground are rare
but have been recorded in subspecies N. p. ginginianus and N. p.
18 days old Egyptian vulture.
Extra-pair copulation with neighbouring birds has been recorded and
may be a reason for adult males to stay close to the female before and
during the egg laying period. Females may sometimes associate with
two males and all three help in raising the brood. The typical
clutch consists of two eggs which are incubated in turns by both
parents. The eggs are brick red with the broad end covered more
densely with blotches of red, brown, and black. The parents begin
incubating soon after the first egg is laid leading to asynchronous
hatching. The first egg hatches after about 42 days. The second
chick may hatch three to five days later and a longer delay increases
the likelihood that it will die of starvation. In cliffs where the
nests are located close to each other, young birds have been known to
clamber over to neighbouring nests to obtain food. In the Spanish
population, young fledge and leave the nest after 90 to 110 days.
Fledged birds continue to remain dependent on their parents for at
least a month.
Once the birds begin to forage on their own, they move away from their
parents' territory; young birds have been found nearly 500 km
away from their nest site. One-year-old European birds migrate
Africa and stay there for at least one year. A vulture that fledged
in France stayed in
Africa for three years before migrating north in
spring. After migrating back to their breeding areas, young
birds move widely in search of good feeding territories and mates. The
full adult plumage is attained in the fourth or fifth year. Egyptian
vultures have been known to live for up to 37 years in captivity and
at least 21 years in the wild. The probability of survival in the wild
varies with age, increasing till the age of 2 and then falling at the
age of 5. Older birds have an annual survival probability varying from
0.75 for non-breeders to 0.83 for breeding birds.
The nominate population, especially in Africa, is known for its use of
stones as tools. When a large egg, such as that of an ostrich or
bustard, is located, the bird walks up to it with a large pebble held
in its bill and tosses the pebble by swinging the neck down over the
egg. The operation is repeated until the egg cracks from the
blows. They prefer using rounded pebbles to jagged rocks. This
behaviour, although it was believed that it was first reported by Jane
Goodall in 1966, it was actually already known to Africans and was
first reported by J. G. Wood in 1877. However, this has only
been reported in
Africa and has not been recorded in N. p.
ginginianus. Tests with both hand-reared and wild birds suggest
that the behaviour is innate, not learnt by observing other birds, and
displayed once they associate eggs with food and have access to
pebbles. Another case of tool-use described from Bulgaria involves
the use of a twig as a tool to roll up and gather strands of wool to
use for lining the nest.
Threats and conservation
Healthy adults do not have many predators, but human activities pose
many threats. Collisions with power lines, hunting, intentional
poisoning, lead accumulation from ingesting gunshot in carcasses, and
pesticide accumulation take a toll on populations. Young birds at the
nest are sometimes taken by golden eagles, eagle owls, and red
foxes. Only rarely do adult birds attempt to drive away
predators. Young birds that fall off of cliff ledges may be preyed
on by mammalian predators such as jackals, foxes and wolves. Like
all birds they serve as hosts for ectoparasitic birdlice including
Aegypoecus perspicuus as well as organisms that live within them
such as mycoplasmas.
Immature (behind) and adult (from John Gould's Birds of Europe)
Egyptian vulture populations have declined in most parts of its range.
Europe and most of the Middle East, populations in 2001 were half
of those from 1980. In India, the decline has been rapid with a 35%
decrease each year since 1999. In 1967–70, the area around Delhi
was estimated to have 12,000–15,000 of these vultures, with an
average density of about 5 pairs per 10 km2. The exact
cause of the decline is not known, but has been linked with the use of
the NSAID Diclofenac, which has been known to cause death in Gyps
In Italy, the number of breeding pairs declined from 30 in 1970 to 9
in the 1990s. Nearly all breeding failures were due to human
activities. In Spain, which holds about 50% of the European
population suggested causes of decline include poisoning by
accumulation of lead, pesticides (especially due to large-scale
use in the control of
Schistocerca gregaria locust swarms), and
electrocution. Windfarms may also pose a threat.
Poorly designed power transmission lines in east
many wintering vultures. A shortage of carrion resulting from new
rules for disposal of dead animals following the outbreak of Bovine
Spongiform Encephalitis in parts of
Europe during 2000 may have also
had an effect on some populations. In Armenia direct
persecution for trophy and for local illegal trade of animal as pet
has been recorded.
The population of Egyptian vultures in the
Canary Islands has been
isolated from those in
Africa for a significant period of
time leading to genetic differentiation. The vulture population there
declined by 30% in the ten years between 1987 and 1998. The
Egyptian vulture was historically common, occurring on the
islands of La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, and
Lanzarote. It is now restricted to
Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, the
two easternmost islands. The total population in 2000 was estimated at
about 130 individuals, including 25–30 breeding pairs.
Island birds also appear to accumulate significant amounts of lead
from scavenging on hunted animal carcasses. The long-term effect of
this poison at a sub-lethal level is not known, though it is known to
alter the mineralization of their bones. In order to provide safe
and uncontaminated food for nesting birds, attempts have been made to
create "vulture restaurants" where carcasses are made available.
However, these interventions may also encourage other opportunist
predators and scavengers to concentrate at the site and pose a threat
to vultures nesting in the vicinity.
The Bible makes a reference to the
Egyptian vulture under the Hebrew
name of rachamah/racham which has been translated into English as
British naturalists in colonial considered them to be among the
ugliest birds, and their habit of feeding on faeces was particularly
The "sacred pair" at
Thirukalukundram in 1906
In Ancient Egypt, the vulture hieroglyph was the uniliteral sign used
for the glottal sound (/ɑː/).
The bird was held sacred to
Isis in ancient Egyptian religion. The use
of the vulture as a symbol of royalty in Egyptian culture and their
protection by Pharaonic law made the species common on the streets of
Egypt and gave rise to the name "pharaoh's chicken".
Vultures are associated with Egyptian goddesses
Mut and Nekhbet
because they act as protectors of the living and consumers of the
A southern Indian temple at
famed for a pair of birds that reputedly visited the temple for
"centuries". These birds were ceremonially fed by the temple priests
and arrived before noon to feed on offerings made from rice, wheat,
ghee, and sugar. Although normally punctual, the failure of the birds
to turn up was attributed to the presence of "sinners" among the
onlookers. Legend has it the vultures (or "eagles")
represented eight sages who were punished by Shiva, with two of them
leaving in each of a series of epochs.
The habit of coprophagy in Egyptian vultures gives them the Spanish
names of "churretero" and "moñiguero", which mean "dung-eater".
Like Ancient Egyptians, Greeks also revered the vulture as a symbol of
life and death. In one case, "the Greek army physician Dioscurides
thought vulture excrement capable of producing abortions."
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Wikimedia Commons has media related to Neophron percnopterus.
Wikispecies has information related to Neophron percnopterus
BTO BirdFacts – Egyptian Vulture
Vulture species text in The Atlas of Southern African Birds.
Vulture – Global Raptor Information Network
Ageing and sexing (PDF; 5.6 MB) by Javier Blasco-Zumeta &
Egyptian vulture media". Internet
Egyptian vulture photo gallery at VIREO (Drexel University)
Bird Census Council
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Fauna Europaea: 96698