Egyptian vultures are small Old World vultures. Their adult plumage is white, and there are some black feathers on the wings and tail. The plumage dulls quickly due to the bird’s habit of stalking around a carcass, waiting its turn, on ground that is usually dusty, so before a molt the feathers are beige more than pure white. Individuals also occasionally cover themselves with soil that contains iron oxide, which makes their plumage a pinkish buff, giving them the name Schmutzgeier in German ("dirt-vulture"). The smallest of Europe’s four vulture species, the Egyptian vulture is also the most endangered of these four.
Egyptian vultures occur in southern Europe, Asia and northern Africa. Isolated populations live in the Cape Verde and Canary Islands. Although these vultures are not true migrating birds, they fly between their resident and breeding areas more than most other vultures. This species generally inhabits arid open areas such as steppe, desert, cereal fields and pastures, but needs rocky sites for nesting. They are often found near where humans live, for example, in or near towns, and around slaughterhouses, rubbish dumps, and fishing ports.
The social behavior of these vultures varies according to the resources available. Many of them will gather together at preferred feeding places with abundant resources, along with immature birds and other carnivores. Otherwise they forage alone or as a pair. Egyptian vultures are diurnal birds and hunt by sight only, not smell. They mostly seek food in open areas where they can see carcasses from very high up. Rather than spotting prey themselves, they often observe other vultures lower in the sky, circling over a potential meal. The group then may perch on a tree above the intended meal to wait before feeding. An individual’s home range, or that of a mating pair, or group of family members extends further than the territory it defends, and often includes human refuse areas or places where livestock are held. Males will perform repeated battles in flight to defend nesting territory.
Egyptian vultures are monogamous, migrating between breeding seasons as a pair. They build a large nest and will constantly replenish it during the breeding season. It may include bits of old rags, hair, and fur. During the period of breeding the male will perform swooping displays for his mate, and during courtship the two of them engage in talon grappling. The breeding season varies a little between populations in different areas, but eggs are usually laid between March and May. Usually two eggs are laid, and they are incubated for a period of 39-45 days by both parents. The male and female both feed their chicks until they fledge 70 to 85 days after hatching. At about 4 months old, the chicks are independent. Once chicks have fledged, they can be seen flying in their home range with their parents. They leave their parents when migration from the breeding grounds starts. They reach maturity when they are 6 years old.
One of the primary threats facing this species is illegal poisoning aimed at carnivores. Furthermore, the widespread treatment of livestock with Diclofenac may have caused the sudden population decline in India, as vultures eat domestic animals’ carcasses. In Africa, particularly in Sudan, and in Spain, particularly in the Canary Islands, many vultures die by being electrocuted by transmission lines that are poorly designed. In many parts of Africa, these birds are captured to be used for medicinal purposes. The Egyptian vulture in Europe has suffered due to disturbance, the greatly reduced availability of food, lead poisoning from gunshot, electrocution by power lines, and direct poisoning.
The IUCN Red List reports that there are about 20,000-61,000 individuals in the total Egyptian vulture population, roughly equal to 13,000-41,000 mature individuals. The breeding population in Europe is estimated as 3,300-5,050 breeding pairs, being 9,900-15,150 individuals. Overall, currently Egyptian vultures are classified as Endangered (En) and today their numbers are decreasing.
Egyptian vultures eat carcasses, trash, and feces, playing an important role removing and recycling organic waste. They also eat small animals and the eggs of other birds and therefore may influence the population size of such prey.