The mascot at my University is the gryphon, so any animal with gryphon in its name (however it’s spelt) is pretty awesome in my books. So today’s animal is a lovely little (but actually huge) vulture from the beautiful mountains of the Himalayas. That’s right, it’s time for the Himalayan griffon vulture! Hooray!

I know you probably didn’t guess it from their name, but Himalayan griffons live in the Himalayas. They seem to particularly like high places, rarely hanging out below 4,000 feet in elevation. Generally these guys spend most of their time perching on high rocks, from which they can survey the world. You can tell which rocks are frequently visited by the excessive streaks of white dung the birds leave behind while perching.

Griffon vultures have wingspans that measure up to 10 feet. That’s quite big. In fact, Himalayan vultures might be the largest bird found in the Himalayas. These vultures have yellow feathers covering their heads, with brown feathers over the rest of their body. The heads have light blue skin with a yellow beak, giving the vultures a strange, albeit fierce look.

A Himalayan griffon vulture, in flight. Image By PJeganathan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Like many vultures, Himalayan griffons feed largely on carcasses and carrion. Some research suggests that the griffon’s entire diet is made of carrion, and even consume rotten flesh. Apparently they like carrion so much that in a group, they can strip a human carcass of meat in 30 minutes. That’s pretty fast. Himalayan vultures have been seen eating pine needles, which is thus far unexplained, as these are indigestible. Maybe they just like the taste. Or maybe they help with digestion. Still, it’s a strange thing to eat.

Griffon vultures nest on cliffs, building platforms of sticks in the high mountains, with some nests being recorded at almost 14,000 feet. Breeding season is in January, and a vulture will lay one white egg with red splotches. Hatched vultures stay with their parents for half a year, no doubt learning to negotiate the harsh world of the high mountains.

Perching on a cliff, and blending in pretty well. Image By Sahana M – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Animals that live in remote areas have always fascinated me. They have such tenacity, to colonize these extreme zones and thrive there. The Himalayan vulture is a prime example of this, even adapting to eat human corpses buried on celestial burial grounds, or feeding on domestic yak corpses (one study suggested that 64% of the bird’s diet was made up of dead yak). At least with the Himalayan griffon vulture around, we know nothing is going to waste!

Cover image By Francesco Veronesi from Italy – Himalayan Griffon – Bhutan_S4E0109, CC BY-SA 2.0