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Rock star

Following the lammergeyer, a particularly tough vulture, to its Corsican lair

Tim Dee | September/October 2015

Stone, bone and rust: welcome to the lammergeyer’s world. These huge vultures are at home in the wildest and rockiest of spots: the Pyrenees, the Taurus Mountains, the Himalayas, the Ethiopian Highlands, the Drakensberg of South Africa, and here, on Monte Incudine in the stony heart of Corsica. There aren’t many lammergeyers, yet montane geology defines them so fully that they are a flying emblem for each of these high places.

Lammergeyers are carrion-eating vultures, but unlike their relatives – the textbook scavengers plunging their bald heads into caverns of gore – they prefer the bones of dead mountain mammals. The lammergeyer’s stomach juices, more acidic than many car batteries, can break down hocks and calcified haunches within a day or so. But it will often hasten its meal with a more graphic style of butchery: it hoicks bones aloft, carrying skeletons in its beak or talons, and drops them from a height of 100 metres or so onto exposed slabs or anvils of rock.

The Spanish for lammergeyer is quebrantahuesos – bone-breaker. Aeschylus, the oldest of the three Greek tragedians whose plays survive, is said to have been killed when a bone-breaker flying above him mistook his bald head for a smashing site and dropped a tortoise on it (the lammergeyer is not averse to fresh meat).

Big birds need big homes and the Parc Naturel Régional de Corse, which covers a third of Corsica, is crowned by steep granitic outcrops, of which Incudine is one of the highest. Lammergeyers breed in its great gashes, their nests untidy gantries of sticks fetched from far away and – as a sole concession to the comfort of their chicks – lined with the wool of dead animals. Two chicks often hatch, but, in keeping with the iron rule of lammergeyer life, the older one will almost always eat its sibling.

And rust? The bearded vulture is another name for this bony-stony character, referring to the feathered black whiskers that fall on either side of its heavy beak like a brigand’s moustache. While it has a black back, wings with a span of nearly three metres and a wedged-shaped black tail, and big eyes that get redder with excitement, the rest of the lammergeyer – its head, breast, belly and amply trousered legs – is a rusty blood-orange. Chicks are much paler. The rust colour comes from iron oxide on the rocks, where lammergeyers rub themselves until their plumage is coated in it. Perhaps this has an antibacterial effect, or perhaps they fancy the colour? No one – none of us down at the bottom of the mountains, anyway – knows why they do it.

And so the lammergeyer dictates the terms by which it flies through life. Those I’ve seen in Corsica, Turkey and Ethiopia required pre-dawn starts and breathless climbs through frosting cold into thin, sun-dazzled air. After hours of struggle, something massive would appear in the sky, still miles away and high above, yet instantly dramatising the already epic scene, a colossal flying event, part crucifix, part rock face, part greatcoat. It was as if Macbeth had just walked on stage.

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