Episode 224 – Bearded Vulture: Iron Wings

“…and today we’re talking about a metal bird that lives a metal lifestyle. But more on that later.”

In nature, there are certain rules. Deer eat grass, wolves eat deer, and vultures eat dead things. But sometimes, animals will break the rules to survive when the going gets tough. Deer are known to occasionally eat small animals like birds. Wolves can supplement their diets with plants, and one vulture may be a bit impatient when waiting for a potential meal to die. But the rules of nature are more like guidelines in Life, Death, and Taxonomy. 


  • A huge eagle-looking bird. Very similar build to the harpy eagle except it has a vulture’s characteristic hooked beak
  • It has dark gray wings with a white or cream-colored chest, legs, and head. 
  • Unlike other vultures, beardy boy has feathers all over his head instead of the usual pink and wrinkly giblet of a head
  • It also has a black tuft under its beak, giving it its signature magician goatee. 
  • It has black streaks going across and around its eyes, which are bright yellow and rimmed with red.
  • In some cases, its cream feathers can be a reddish rust color. This is usually due to having dust or mud on it. It can also be due to drinking mineral-rich water.
  • With the red and yellow eyes, red and black body, and sharp black goatee, I’ve never seen a bird look more like Jafar.
  • It also has a spade-shaped tail rather than the typical fan-shaped tail of most birds of prey.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro, but we’re going to revisit our greatest hits. 


  • 2.31–2.83 m (7 ft 7 in – 9 ft 3 in)
  • How many of the tallest stack of M&Ms go into the length of a bearded vulture’s wingspan?
  • Hint: The feat was achieved by Ibrahim Sadeq of Iraq on April 7, 2022. The record was previously held by UK man Will Cutbill, who achieved the record in 2021. 
  • 63 stacks. The stack was 1.75 inches tall. An M&M is 0.25 inches and Sadeq stacked seven of them. 


  • 4.5–7.8 kg (9.9–17.2 lb)
  • How many of the heaviest blueberries go into the weight of the bearded vulture?
  • Hint: The blueberry was grown in 2020 by David and Leasa Mazzardis of Wilbinga, Australia. It’s a variety of blueberries called Ozblu, which are known to be big. 
  • 481.5 blueberries. The blueberry is 16.20 grams (0.5 ounces).

Fast Facts

  • Range: Lives in the horn of Africa as well as a band across the Middle East from Turkey to China and extending up to Siberia.
  • Diet: As a vulture, Jafar mostly eats dead animals. But it breaks the mold, and some bones, by strongly preferring the bone marrow over the meat. 
    • Up to 90% of its diet is actually marrow
    • It can swallow and digest decently-sized bones
    • It gets its name, ossifrage (or “bone breaker”), because when the bones are too big to swallow, it tends to fly the corpses of animals up to 500 ft in the air and drop them onto rocks to break the bones and get at that sweet sweet marrow. Repeat if necessary
      • This is learned behavior and can take up to seven years for a juvenile to master.
  • Behavior:
    • They live for up to 45 years in captivity
    • The mating dance involves locking talons and falling through the sky in an elegant dance
  • Their eggs hatch in winter because that’s when more animals die, which is a boon for vultures. 

Major Fact: Iron Wings

Bearded vultures are unique because they actually attack and kill prey animals. Most vultures are scavengers. They are specialized to be able to eat carrion and decaying flesh. 

But bearded vultures have been known to attack animals like marmots and hyraxes, and even large prey like ibex, Capra goats, chamois, and steenbok. They will sometimes kill prey by lifting them and dropping them from a high height. They especially do this to tortoises, which golden eagles kill in the same way.

But bearded vultures also attack large prey that are positioned high on rocks. They’ll startle their prey by descending upon them and beating them with their wings until they fall off the side of a cliff. Smaller animals like ground birds are sometimes killed outright by the wing-attack. 

The fact that they used their wings as weapons isn’t the only thing that makes them iron. Adult vultures bath in pools that are rich in iron oxide, which can actually stain their feathers red. You can observe this the most on their white chest and neck feathers. 

So they literally beat their prey with iron wings.

Ending: So spread your iron wings, crush your prey against the rocks, and say goodbye to Prince Abubu like the bearded vulture here in LDT