Himalayan Vulture: The Ultimate Guide

The Himalayan Vulture, also known commonly as the Himalayan Griffon Vulture, is an old world vulture that is native to the Himalayas, and the Tibetan Plateau region.

It is one of the two largest old world vultures we have nowadays, and it is a true raptor bird. Sadly, it is classed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. 

With this scavenger bird favoring valleys and mountainous regions, it is very common throughout the entire Himalayan region. The adults are usually sandy brown in color, with a featherless head that makes them very identifiable.

They are usually seen in small groups, or alone, but they can gather in very large flocks at big carcasses. They are also the main scavenger at Tibetan sky burials, so these locations are where they are most easily found. 

Some other basic key facts before we get into the ultimate guide: 

  • Binomial name: Gyps Himalayensis
  • Measurements: Body between 40 and 45 inches in length (101 cm to 114cm), Wingspan between 29 and 31 inches (73 cm to 78 cm), Tail between 14 and16 inches (35.5 cm to 40.6 cm). 

Appearance – What does the Himalayan Vulture look like?

Himalayan vultures are very big birds, one of the largest and heaviest birds that you will find in the entire Himalayan region for sure. The adults have a ruff that is long and pale brown, with some white streaks running through it.

The ruff feathers are also long and spiky. The head is featherless, which is one of the most identifiable features, yellowish in adults but white in young vultures. The legs, meanwhile, are covered in large and thick feathers, with greenish-grey to white feet. 

They have a pale blue face, and the wing and tail feathers are dark in color to contrast this. The feathers on the body are usually a light brown, with pale shaft streaks. 

Himalayan vultures can weigh between 13lbs to 28lbs (5.8kg to 12.7kg), with an estimated average of around 20lbs (9kg), so they are chunky! The wingspan is large, usually between 8 to 10 feet (243.8 cm to 304.8 cm) long. 

Overall, they look pretty intimidating and scary, as they have all the typical traits of a vulture, paired with an extra-large size that makes them all the more present. 

Male Vs Female – How to tell the difference

Both male and female Himalayan Griffon vultures have the same plumage coloring, and the same similar average measurements, size, and weight. Therefore, there is no visible difference between the two sexes.

Instead, a closer examination is needed in order to tell them apart. 

Out in the field, it is almost impossible to tell which one is male, and which one is female, by appearance alone. 

Are Himalayan Vultures aggressive?

Himalayan Griffon Vultures are huge, with deadly claws and a sharp beak, apt scavengers that can pull apart a carcass in no time. But are they aggressive? 

Thankfully, they avoid human settlements and stay far away from people, so there aren’t any cases of them being aggressive towards us in any way. 

Amongst each other, however, they can become aggressive when fighting over food. 

When it comes to other species of birds and other vultures, they know to stay away from the Himalayan vulture. You could say that the Himalayan Griffon dominates all other birds in the region.

As the biggest bird around they get the first choice on the carcasses left behind, and the rest make way for them. 

What adaptions do they have?

All of the physical traits of the Himalayan Griffon Vulture are perfectly adapted to the habitat and lifestyle that these birds live. Here are a few of the most significant adaptations they feature:

  • They have large wings, in order to soar up high within the mountainous region, without having to flap them too often. This allows them to conserve energy, so they can fly for a lot longer! 
  • These vultures have incredible eyesight which allows them to spot carrion and other sources of food from very high up in the air. You might notice them circling high above in the sky, and that’s them looking out! 
  • These vultures can auto-thermoregulate without the help of metabolism. This allows them to restrict energy and water loss, making them resilient. They can go a long time without food, and they are able to keep flying even at low-energy levels. 
  • They have a strong and thick beak, perfect for smashing through the carcass when scavenging for food. 

Breeding and reproduction of the Himalayan Vulture

Himalayan Vulture

The breeding season for these vultures begins in January and lasts until around March. They will usually mate at the nest site, above the ground. There is no courtship display whatsoever.

Instead, the female will crouch down as the male approaches (if she is receptive), and the male will then jump on her back and take hold of her ruff with the beak. The male will vocalize and emit loud roaring calls, and then they mate! Very straight to the point. 

They are also monogamous, and they will usually return to the same nesting site, to the same partner, year after year.

The nest itself is built on a ledge, or within a cave, usually around 100 to 200 meters (328 to 656 feet) up by the side of a cliff. There will usually be many nests in the same area too, creating nesting colonies. 

The nests are made out of sticks, constructed by the birds themselves. 

Once the eggs have been laid, the female vulture will incubate, and then take care of the chicks until they are old enough to leave the nest. 

What does the call of a Himalayan Vulture sound like?

Himalayan vultures will mainly make noise during the breeding season, as they mate, and while feeding or in large flocks. They are known to be very loud, with grunts, screeching, and similar. 

What does the Himalayan Vulture eat?

Himalayan Griffon Vultures are scavengers, and they eat carrion exclusively, sometimes even when it’s already putrid. On the Tibetan Plateau, for example, around 64% of their diet consists of dead domestic yak. 

Historically, these vultures have also fed on human corpses which were left out on Celestian burial grounds within the region. 

Habitat – Where does the Himalayan Vulture live?

The habitat of the Himalayan vulture is in the name: the Himalayan region, and the Tibetan Plateau. 

They like mountainous regions, and remain at high altitudes, even nesting at the side of cliffs. 

Nesting habits of the Himalayan Vulture:

Himalayan Vultures build their nests during the breeding season, an endeavor performed by both males and females, as a joint effort. They are built on the side of cliffs, sometimes within small caves. 

Lifespan – How long does the Himalayan Vulture live for?

Himalayan Vultures have not been studied in depth until quite recently, and therefore there is not much information on their population dynamics or lifespan.

However, one of their closest relatives, the White-backed vulture, has a lifespan of up to 20 years, and this is also suspected of the Himalayan vulture. 

What predators does the Himalayan Vulture have?

The Himalayan Griffon Vulture has no natural predators. The only real threats are humans, and changes in the habitat. 

In fact, these vultures dominate the region, benign the biggest and scariest birds around! 

What are the feathers of a Himalayan Vulture like?

The feathers of a Himalayan vulture range from white to dark brown, with pale streaks. They are long, thick, and help keep them warm within the high altitudes they inhabit. 

Do Himalayan Vultures migrate?

Himalayan Vultures do not migrate. Instead, they remain within their defined regions, throughout the entire Himalayan range and Tibetan Plateau. 

Conservation status of the Himalayan Vulture

The Himalayan Griffon Vultures are classed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List. In many parts of Asia and Africa, the use of veterinary diclofenac has negatively impacted these vultures.

It causes visceral gout in them, resulting in renal failure and death. 

The main problem is that this drug is often found contaminating the carcasses that the vultures consume. 

Fun facts about the Himalayan Vulture

The Himalayan Griffon Vulture is truly fascinating, here are some extra fun facts that you should know: 

At first, the Himalayan vulture was considered a subspecies of the Griffon vulture. However, it is now its own species: the Himalayan Griffon Vulture. 

These vultures are one of the most gregarious species out of all raptor birds. They live in large flocks, and even have nesting colonies! 

There is a Himalayan Vulture that was captured and that lived in captivity, and it lived for more than 41 years! That’s a big lifespan. 

Himalayan Griffon vultures have no natural predators and they dominate the region they inhabit. In fact, other birds and species of vulture are quick to move away when the Himalayan Vultures appear, and they get the first choice of food! 

Historically, Himalayan Vultures have fed on human corpses, which were left on celestial burial grounds.