Known also by the nickname “the pharaoh’s chicken”, the Egyptian vulture is an imposing scavenger seen scouring the skies above North and Saharan Africa, southwestern and Central Asia and southern Europe. Notable for its use of pebbles as tools, Egyptian vultures are classified as an endangered species and populations continue to show concerning declines.
Sharing the coloration of European storks, adult Egyptian vultures have contrasting black and white plumage, a vast wingspan, and a wedge-shaped tail. They are mainly white, but their flight feathers are black, particularly noticeable when seen in flight from below, with the entire trailing edge of the wings is black and the front half white.
In captivity, Egyptian vultures have pure white bodies, although, in the wild, they are mottled with rusty brown streaks on their lower belly, stained from the iron-rich sandy soils of their natural environments.
Distinctive facial features include a feathery frill around the crown and neck and bare yellow skin around the eyes and throat. The bill is yellow, tipped with black, but may be entirely yellow in some geographical areas, particularly the populations in India and Nepal. Eyes are black, and legs and feet are pink.
Male and female Egyptian vultures are alike in plumage and can’t accurately be told apart by their size (females are around 10 to 15 percent heavier although roughly the same height). The facial skin of breeding males is a deeper orange than the bright yellow of females and non-breeding males.
Juvenile Egyptian vultures are black or chocolate brown in color and do not resemble adults at all in coloring, although they share the same body shape and stature. The plumage of young birds is marked with irregular white, gray, and brown patches, and their faces and legs are usually gray. Young birds do not acquire their full adult coloring until they turn five.
Juvenile Egyptian Vulture
Egyptian vultures boast an impressive wingspan, up to 2.7 times their body length. However, among vultures, they are relatively small, only roughly half the size of the giant cinereous vulture.
Females are sometimes marginally larger in length than males, and usually between 10 and 15 percent heavier.
Egyptian Vulture in a meadow
Egyptian vultures are not a particularly vocal species and rarely call. Whistles and screeches are occasionally heard around feeding sites, while hissing and grunting sounds may be heard when nesting.
Egyptian Vulture in rocky habitat
Opportunistic scavengers, Egyptian vultures will eat whatever they come across, in order to survive.
Their diet is mainly carrion-based, including carcasses of livestock, birds, dogs, and other small mammals. Food sources are spotted from soaring flights, where vultures scan the ground below and can identify a potential feeding site from up to 1 km away.
Occasionally live animals will also be eaten, particularly weak or dying mammals, such as injured rabbits, chicks, or fish. Organic matter is also occasionally eaten, including rotting fruit or human waste.
Egyptian vultures will also feast on the eggs of other birds, particularly ostriches, and have been observed to use stones as tools to crack them open.
Initially, Egyptian vulture chicks are fed on crop milk, regurgitated into their bills by their parents. Adults return to the nest with scraps of carrion from a carcass, carried in their crop as their talons only have a weak grip. They then bring this food up from their crop and feed it to their young.
Egyptian Vulture breaking an egg using a stone
Egyptian Vulture feeding on a carcass
Open arid landscapes offer the necessary scavenging sites for Egyptian vultures to scour from above for feeding opportunities. Rocky ledges and cliffs are required for nesting.
In search of food, they have become increasingly common on the fringes of suburban areas, relying on human waste and livestock. Pasturelands and mountainous terrain may also be suitable; however, Egyptian vultures cover extensive distances by air in search of a meal.
Egyptian vultures have a wide distribution range, breeding across the Iberian Peninsula, southern Europe, and North Africa, through Ukraine and Turkey into Central Asia, and east, as far as northwest India.
To the south, Egyptian vultures are present and year-round residents across Saharan Africa into the Arabian peninsula, and throughout most of India. Isolated permanent populations are also found in southwestern Africa, in Namibia and Angola, and in the Canary Islands.
Around 25 percent of the world’s Egyptian vultures live in Europe, with Spain home to around 40 percent of the continent’s total population. Across the Arabian peninsula, declines have been recorded, but Oman supports a stable or increasing number.
Africa has the largest share of the global population, with an estimated 7,500 pairs, or 20,000 individuals, many of which are concentrated in Ethiopia.
To the east, the Asian populations of Egyptian vultures are found mainly in India and Nepal, where it is estimated that there are more than 2,000 individuals.
Flock of Egyptian Vultures wandering through grassland
The global population of mature individuals is estimated to be between 12,400 and 36,000 individuals, with significant population declines noted in recent decades. Sightings are relatively rare, even within the traditional strongholds of their population concentrations, including Ethiopia, Algeria, Chad, and Cameroon.
Between 3,000 and 4,500 breeding pairs of Egyptian vultures are present in Europe, around 1,300 of which live in Spain. Southern Europe, including Greece and the Balkan states, have resident, declining populations.
However, the picture is not all bleak, as the Spanish population is stable, and in France, an increase in number has been recorded in recent years. In 2021, an Egyptian vulture was spotted in the Scilly Isles, off the southwestern coast of England: it was the first sighting of the species in the UK since 1868.
Egyptian Vulture in-flight looking for prey
In the wild, Egyptian vultures are known to survive for around 21 years, but face threats from poaching, starvation, pesticide poisoning, and accidental collisions with power cables. In captivity, protected from these factors, they can live for more than 37 years.
Egyptian vultures reach sexual maturity at the age of 5 but usually delay breeding for the first time until 8 or 9.
Due to their size and imposing presence, adult Egyptian vultures are not known to have any natural predators. However, their young are occasionally vulnerable to predation by foxes, golden eagles, eagle owls, wolves, and jackals.
As well as natural threats, further risks to the survival of Egyptian vultures are present in the form of lead poisoning from ammunition, poisoning from the ingestion of pesticides, and collisions with artificial structures such as power cables, particularly in mountainous regions of Europe.
Across Europe, Egyptian vultures are protected under a number of conservation acts, and safeguarded by monitoring programs and designated habitat areas across their range, aimed at preventing nest disturbance and poaching.
International measures in place to protect the species include CITES Appendix II, the EU Birds Directive Annex I, and the Bern Convention Appendix II.
Egyptian vultures are designated as an endangered species by the IUCN Red List.
In Europe, dramatic declines in population of around 50 percent in the last 40 years, of which the most serious decrease in numbers – up to 80 percent – was recorded in the Balkan states.
In Africa, similar declines in Egyptian vulture numbers have been witnessed, including South Africa, Lesotho, and Eswatini, where the species is now extinct, and Namibia, where breeding no longer occurs.
The Indian populations are also in a state of critical decline, linked directly to the drug diclofenac that was widely used in veterinary practice to treat the livestock that forms much of the diet of Egyptian vultures and is fatally toxic to raptors.
Egyptian Vulture landing in mountain habitat
Typical nest sites are chosen on ledges on cliffs, crags, and rocky outcrops, as well as in the forks between branches of large trees, on buildings or electricity pylons, and occasionally directly on the ground.
Nests are bulky, untidy platforms made from twigs, lined with wool, hair, and rags. Males and females work together to build the nests, and they will frequently reuse nests in future breeding seasons.
The breeding season for Egyptian vultures is usually between January and March, with pairs raising one brood together in a typical year. These dates may vary according to geographical location, with earlier breeding recorded in Nigeria and later laying dates, from April to May in Mediterranean regions.
Incubation is shared between males and females and lasts for around 42 days. Shared parental care continues after the young hatch, with both feeding young in the nest for between 70 and 90 days until they fledge and continuing to support their young for a further month outside the nest.
Egyptian vultures usually lay two eggs, although between one and three is not unusual. Eggs are whitish, heavily marked with brick-red scrawls and blotches, and measure around 63 mm by 48 mm (2.5 in by 1.9 in).
Egyptian vultures are believed to mate for life, forming strongly bonded pairs from around eight years of age. Pairs migrate together after breeding is complete and usually return to their nesting grounds together if both mates have survived the winter.
A pair of Egyptian Vultures
Egyptian Vulture sitting on the nest
Due to their size, Egyptian vultures have a reputation as being relatively unaggressive when compared to other larger vultures.
At feeding sites, Egyptian vultures are among the furthest down the pecking order and wait until more dominant, powerful species have taken their turn. They are more likely to be on the receiving end of aggressive confrontations than being the aggressors themselves.
Egyptian vultures are active in the daytime, relying on sight rather than smell to find food. They roost overnight, usually in solitary pairs but occasionally as part of a much larger group.
Roosting spots on old, dead trees or high up on cliff ledges are preferred, offering a clear view of the surrounding terrain.
Egyptian Vulture perched on top of a tree looking over the terrain
Not all Egyptian vultures migrate, although a large number do maintain separate breeding and wintering territories in different parts of the world. Populations living in northern regions are most likely to be migratory, including the entire European population, those in North Africa, and those that breed across Central Asia.
In the Indian Subcontinent, Arabian Peninsula, and across Saharan Africa southwards, Egyptian vultures are resident in the same territories all year round, although some local post-breeding wandering may occur.
Migrating Egyptian vultures cover epic distances of 3,500 km to 5,500 km (2,200 mi to 3,400 mi) between their summer breeding grounds and their winter territories on the southern edge of the Sahara.
A usual route from Europe takes migratory Egyptian vultures via Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar into North Africa, so as to spend the least possible time traveling over water.
Egyptian vultures cover up to 500 km (310 mi) in a single day, and the time taken to reach their wintering grounds depends on their routes and their starting points.
One tracked individual was observed to reach his destination in as little as 14 days, from Greece to Chad, while other migrations, for example between Uzbekistan and Yemen, took almost two months to complete.
Egyptian Vulture taking-off from mountainous terrain
Egyptian vulture numbers have suffered significant declines in the last 40 years, and there are now thought to be only 12,400 to 36,000 mature, breeding individuals left in the world, which is roughly equivalent to a total population of between 18,600 and 54,000 individuals.
In ancient Egyptian culture, Egyptian vultures are associated with purification, protection, and maternity.
Their practice of feeding on carcasses is seen as a valuable process to sanitize the local environment from infections and decay, and in turn, protect their young from death. In turn, they also have associations with removing negativity from your life and signaling transformation and rebirth.
Vultures are referenced in the Bible in the context of not being suitable for eating, due to their own feeding habits of feasting on the flesh of dead or decaying animal carcasses.
Vultures can also be interpreted as an omen relating to the Day of Judgment when vultures will gather around those who reject God’s word.
Pharaoh's Chicken, White Scavenger Vulture
54cm to 70cm
146cm to 175cm
1.6kg to 2.4kg
Also known as the Eurasian Griffon, this large short tailed vulture has excellent eyesight and in flight can spot an animal carcass from a distance in excess of five kilometres.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.