Why do bearded vultures turn red?

Answered by James Kissner

Bearded vultures, also known as lammergeiers, have a unique and fascinating behavior of turning their feathers rusty red. This distinctive coloration is not due to genetics or natural pigmentation, but rather it is a result of the vultures’ own efforts to decorate themselves.

The process begins with the bearded vultures’ choice of habitats. They prefer to live in mountainous regions where red iron oxide deposits are found in soils and water sources. These iron oxide deposits give the vultures the perfect material to create their desired coloration.

To achieve the rusty red color, bearded vultures engage in a behavior known as “bathing.” They will either roll around in iron-rich soils or immerse themselves in water sources containing high concentrations of iron oxide. By doing so, the vultures coat their white feathers with the red iron oxide particles, creating their unique and striking appearance.

The purpose of this behavior is not entirely understood, but there are a few theories that researchers have proposed. One possibility is that the red coloration serves as a visual signal to other vultures, indicating their maturity and readiness to breed. This would be similar to how some birds display vibrant plumage during mating seasons.

Another hypothesis suggests that the red coloration may act as a form of camouflage. In their mountainous habitats, bearded vultures often scavenge on the carcasses of large mammals, which can leave blood stains on their feathers. The rusty red coloration could help them blend in with their surroundings, making it easier to approach prey without being noticed.

It is important to note that the bearded vultures’ ability to turn red is not a permanent feature. Over time, the red iron oxide particles wear off, and the vultures need to repeat the bathing process to maintain their coloration. This behavior is typically observed in adult bearded vultures, as juveniles and immature individuals do not exhibit this red coloration.

The unique behavior of bearded vultures turning red is a result of their deliberate efforts to decorate themselves. By bathing in iron oxide-rich soils or water, they create a rusty red coloration on their white feathers. The purpose of this behavior is still a subject of study, with theories ranging from visual signaling to camouflage. Regardless of the exact reason, this fascinating behavior sets bearded vultures apart from other bird species and adds to their allure in the animal kingdom.