Notes on the 'bearded eagle’

I cannot be the only person in lockdown digging out books that are normally rarely opened, which prompts me to share an extract from Cassell’s Natural History Vol III edited by P Martin Duncan MB FRS*.

The text (including the splendid drawing shown here) runs to 3½ pages and is based on accounts by various correspondents. These two paragraphs particularly caught my eye, about the 'Bearded Eagle, or Lämmergeier’.

Line drawing scanned from Cassell’s Natural History Vol III.
‘In Algeria, the Lämmergeier is said to feed largely on Land Tortoises, which it carries to a great height in the air, and drops upon a convenient rock, so as to break the shell. So much has been written upon the habits of this bird that it would be impossible to give here one tithe of the interesting notes which have been published in various works and periodical; but no history of the species, however brief, would be complete without a passing mention of the little girl who was said to have been carried off in childhood by one of these birds. The history, believed by him to be well authenticated, is related by Naumann as follows. “Anna Zurbuchen, of Hatchern, in Bern Oberland, born in 1760, was taken out by her parents, when she was nearly three years old, when they went to collect herbs. She fell asleep, and the father put his straw hat over her face and went to his work. Shortly after, when he returned with a bundle of hay, the child was gone; and the parents and peasants sought her in vain. During this time Heinrich Michel, of Unterseen, was going on a path to Wäppesbach, and suddenly heard a child cry. He ran towards the sound, and a Bearded Vulture rose, scared by him, from a mound, and soared away over the precipice. On the extreme edge of the latter, below which a stream roared, and over whose edge any moment would have precipitated it, Michel found the child, which was uninjured, except on the left arm and hand, where the bird had probably clutched it; its shoes, stockings, and cap were gone. This occurred on the 12th of July, 1763. The place where the child was found was about 1,400 paces distant from the tarn where it had been left asleep. The child was afterwards called Lämmergeier-Anni, and married Peter Frutiger, a tailor in Gewaldswyl, where she was still living in 1814.”

‘The circumstantial way in which the above narrative runs appears to leave little doubt of its reality, but it is difficult to give it credence, as the Lämmergeier has but little power in its feet, which resemble those of the Vultures; and most of the stories of its prowess have been discredited by the researches of modern naturalists. Dr. Brehm observes: “To my intense astonishment, the Spanish hunters did not regard this bird as in the slightest degree as a bold, merciless robber: all asserted that it fed on carrion, especially bones, only attacking living animals when driven by necessity. They called it ‘Quebranta-Huesos,’ or the ‘Bone-Smasher,’ and assured me that this favourite food was broken in a singular manner. My later observations proved nothing which would justify my treating their statements as otherwise than correct, so I was forced to come to the conclusion that the Lämmergeier has been much maligned.”’

Quite an anecdote, but credit to Professor Duncan for challenging it, and to the observations of the Spanish hunters that chime with what we know now about the bearded vulture or lammergeier, a bird much appreciated by many Honeyguide groups in the Pyrenees and Crete.

* A fuller listing says edited by P Martin Duncan M.B. (Lond.), F.R.S., F.G.S., Professor of Geology in and Honorary Fellow of King’s College, London; Correspondent of the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.

 

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