This is the latest entry of the Barnes’s Bestiary series, written by journalist, author, World Land Trust (WLT) ambassador and member of the WLT council Simon Barnes. See here to read all of Simon’s other entries so far.
The dramatic places of the world tend to have beasts to match: lammergeiers live in mountains and effortlessly add to their excessive nature. They cruise on long narrow wings with a span of getting on for ten feet, and when they fly past you can almost hear the fanfare: lofty birds that love lofty places.
And there I was I was looking down on one. Yes, looking down on a lammergeier. For a head-swimming moment I could see that unmistakable shape – vast slim wings and great wedge of a tail – between my boots. I was sitting on a long rocky ridge among the peaks with a vast drop before me and this impossibly great bird below me. It was almost like being a lammergeier myself. You can find them in the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Zagros Mountains, the Himalaya – and right there in the mountains of the Caucasus in Armenia.
Lammergeiers are related to vultures and are sometimes called bearded vultures, which seems to me to compromise their uniqueness. They eat bones: up to 90 percent of their diet is bone and they prefer bones to meat. They are also called ossifrages or bone-breakers: an essential lammergeier life-skill is to carry bones – often weighing as much as the bird itself – up to 500 feet or so before dropping them so they shatter into conveniently edible pieces.
They do the same thing with live tortoises. Aeschylus, the classical tragedian – greatest hits include the Oresteia — met a slightly comic end when a bird – and it must have been a lammergeier – dropped a tortoise on his head.
Mountains stir us humans. They lift our souls and fill us with noble thoughts. Up in the mountains everything seems possible: and this sense that glory is almost within reach is redoubled when a lammergeier cruises into a view: a creature utterly in its own majesty.
I saw this between-the-boots lammergeier in Armenia when I was travelling with John Burton, co-founder of World Land Trust. He loved this wild place, being a pretty wild sort of person, and the project in Armenia with WLT’s Armenian partner organisation FPWC was very close to his heart. He died earlier this year: the John Burton Memorial Fund will benefit Armenia and help to keep the lammergeiers aloft. And that seems to me to be a pretty noble thought.