1. Vulture monachus

No.* 1. Vulture Monachus, Lin.

THE Cinereous Vulture.

I have been unable to obtain certain information as to the breeding of this noble bird within our limits, but it most certainly does breed in the Himalayas, as I have seen a perfect egg, which was extracted from the oviduct of a female, shot in March, 1865, between Dalhousie and Murree. Nests are likely to be found anywhere in precipitous places, in the Himalayas, or perhaps in large trees, in the Sub-Himalayan ranges, west of the Ganges. Eastwards of this, the species seems to have far fewer representatives; though Dr. Jerdon has seen it at Darjeeling, and specimens have been obtained in Assam and Bhotan.

The following particulars of its nidification, in the Pyrenees, are derived from Dr. Bree's work. The breeding season is not mentioned. The bird breeds in isolated pairs, and not in society as Fulvus (verus), Auricularis, Indicus and Bengalensis all appear to do. It builds, Dr. Bree says, among the most inaccessible rocks, making a large nest of branches, boughs and small sticks.

It lays, it is said, two eggs in the Pyrenees, but with us,'would probably, like other species of this family, lay normally, only one; just as, in another family, Circaetus Gallicus, which in some parts of the world always lays two, here (I speak from the experience of over 20 nests, in several of which the egg was nearly ready to hatch off), apparently, never lays more than one egg. In colour, the eggs vary from a more or less pure white, with scarcely a trace of markings, and this I take to be the normal type, to a reddish or fulvous white, richly spotted and marked with reddish brown, or brownish red. In shape, they are said to be " pointed alike at both ends," but the egg I saw, (and Dr. Bree's figure corresponds in shape) was a very blunt, slightly pyriform oval, one end being decidedly smaller than the other. In texture, they are coarse and rough; more so I think in the specimen I saw, than those of either Bengalensis or Calms. The lining I omitted to notice, or, if I did notice it, have now forgotten its colour; but it is probably greenish as in other vultures. The egg figured by Dr. Bree, from Thienemann, measures 3.48 by 2.75, but I should guess this to be a small egg, as Bengalensis and Calms, both smaller birds, often lay larger eggs than this.

Dr. Jerdon had probably never seen much of this bird, when he wrote his account of it. In no single specimen, of the numbers that I have killed (or watched with binoculars, from within 100 yards greedily devouring some carcass) were the " bill with the cere red mixed with ashy," nor " the naked parts of the neck ashy red," nor the " legs dusky yellow." Such may be the colouring of individuals in confinement, but it has not been that of any one of the fifty odd wild birds that I have closely examined. My measurements, made in the flesh, moreover scarcely agree with his, and so for purposes of comparison I insert my own notes taken from numerous freshly killed specimens.

Length 42 to 45. Expanse from 96 to 118. Wing, from 29.5 to 32; the 3rd primary the longest, the 1st from 3 to 4 shorter, and the 2nd from .5 to 1 shorter. Tail, from vent, from 13 to 16 ; the outer tail feathers from 1.5 to 3 shorter than the central ones. Tarsus, 4..8 to 5.5. Tibia, 8 to 8.75. Foot, greatest Length, 8 to 9; greatest width, 5.75 to 6.6; mid toe (to root of claw), 3.7 to 4.25 ; its claw, along the curve, 1.4 to 1.75; hind toe, 1.5 to 1.9, its claw along the curve 1.75 to nearly 2 ; inner toe 1.6 to 2, its claw along the curve 1.7 to 2. Bill from gape 3.6 to 4.0; width at gape 2.2 to 2.5; bill straight from edge of cere to point 2.3 to 2.7; along curve from margin of cere, 3 to 3.25; length of cere on culmen, 1.16 to 1.28; height of bill at margin of cere, 1.2 to 1.3. "Wings when closed, reach to within from 1 to 4 inches of end of tail. Lower tail coverts generally reach to within 4 or 5 inches of end of tail. Weight from 12 lbs to nearly 20 lbs; 14 lbs being the average for males, and the females being considerably heavier.

The tarsus is covered in front, and on the sides, for more than half its Length, with a dense, almost silky fur, which in one place almost meets behind. The bare portion of the tarsus and the feet* are, in some, a dear, slightly creamy white, on others, a pearl white, with here and there a barely perceptible pink tinge. Scutellation reticulate, scales slightly prominent; with commonly 5 rather large transverse scuta? at the end of the middle toe, and 4 at the ends of the others; outer and centre toes connected by a membrane as far as the 2nd joints. Traces of a membraneous connection between inner and mid toe. Terminal pads of hinder and inner toes very large. Inner toe claw as large and at times even slightly larger than the hind toe claw, outer toe and claw, especially the latter, very feeble.

Irides brown, lower eyelid creamy white, (often with a faint delicate lilac or even purplish shade) pinkish at margin, and with a row of thick short eyelash feathers; upper lid, and bare eye-shelf pinkish, at times with a lilac shade. Cere, gape and base of lower mandible a pale mauve, at times tinged in places with pink. Bill horny, blackish brown, darker on upper mandible and tip of lower ditto, palest at sides of base of upper mandible, and of lower ditto. Tongue thick and fleshy, round ended, slightly emarginate at the tip, hastate as a whole, and fringed at the back, not merely grooved down the centre, but the sides curving regularly up from the middle, so as to give a semicircular section. The lores, cheeks, forehead, crown, occiput, chin and throat, and a patch on the lower mandible, covered with dark brown fur-like feathers, growing lighter towards the occiput. This fur is sparse and rather harsh on the cheeks, chin and throat, but very dense and soft on the upper portions of the head. The naked skin at the back and sides of neck, and the bare patch over the articulation of the jaws, (generally continued as a ring upwards, behind and over the dark fur border of the ear aperture, to within one half an inch or so of the posterior angle of the eye,) creamy, or in some, delicate bluish white, occasionally with a shade of pink.

The whole body and wings are a rich, very dark, chocolate brown, (the under surface being darker than the upper,) the quills and tail being almost black. The feathers of the lower part of the back and sides of the neck, are of a loose texture, elongated and of a slightly lighter hue than the back, and form a conspicuous ruff. Feathers of the upper breast lengthened, acutely pointed, somewhat rigid, and often with the webs a good deal separated. The tail feathers are remarkably stiff, with the tips much abraded, and naked, tipped with extremely stiff hard projecting shafts, reminding one much of the tail feathers of many woodpeckers. I do not know if the fact has been noticed, but I have repeatedly seen this vulture use its tail for a fulcrum, much as a woodpecker does, tearing out the entrails of a dead camel with claws firmly dug into, and tail hard pressed against the carcass, nay I have seen it, when on the ground, tearing to pieces lumps of flesh which it held down between its two feet, always as it lifted its head, tearing away morsel by morsel, firmly pressing its tail against the ground.

To return, the lower tail coverts are of a slightly lighter hue than any other part except the occiput. The first 5 quills are strongly notched on the inner web and the 2nd to the 6th are emarginate on the outer webs ; both notches and emarginations are very high up and near the bases of the feathers.

Dr. Jerdon says that this bird " is found, though rarely, in the Himalayas, occasionally descending to the plains;" but this scarcely conveys a correct idea. Throughout the upper Doab, the Punjab and Northern Rajpootana, it is found during the cold weather ; even as low as Etawah, I used to see at least a dozen and shoot at least 2 or 3 (and in Etawah it is very wary) every year. Further north, in the Sirsa district for instance, it is one of the commonest vultures during the cold weather, and I have seen 20 of this species with a few of the large plains representative of Fulvus (our Fulvescens No. 3 bis), all busy over a single camel. In localities where they are plentiful, they are by no means difficult to approach ; at any rate when feeding, I have twice killed two at a shot with a single barrel of an ordinary No. 12 fowling-piece with No. 3 loose shot, and Mr. Parsons of Sirsa, in shooting for me, (I happened to be on horseback at the moment and he on foot,) an imperial eagle busy with a dead calf, knocked over one of these vultures with the same shot that killed the eagle. I have never found any difficulty in getting up to within 50 or 60 yards of them in the upper Punjaub, when feeding on the ground; and from a distance of from 80 to 100 yards, they will let you stare at them through binoculars as long as you like. Near Murree in October, I saw a large group of them devouring some dead animal in a khud (valley) below the road. I saw several at Rawulpindee and at Lahore, and generally, I should say, that this species is very nearly as common in the cold weather in the northern portion of the Punjab as even Gyps Bengalensis.

The youngest birds, that I have seen, had the legs dingy yellow, and were of a dull pale brown, the wing coverts and scapulars centred darker, and with a sort of faint pinkish or ruddy tint on the upper surface, very conspicuous, when rising close in front of one along with young and adults of our Fulvescens (No. 3 bis). I once shot one, but was unable to preserve it, and so can now give no exact description.

Between this, comparatively, very light plumage and the deep chocolate brown, that at a short distance looks perfectly black, every shade of plumage is observable.

The claws of Vultur Monachus are, on the whole, sharper than those of any other species of Indian Vulture and contrast in this respect strongly with those of our hills, and plains, representatives of Gyps Fulvus, (No. 3 and No. 3 bis); as a rule too they are not only much sharper but considerably more powerful.

The Rev. H. B. Tristram, in his ornithology of Palestine, (Ibis 1865) gives an interesting account of a " successful attack" on an Eyrie of this Vulture.

" On the 27th of February, Mr. Upcher, while walking with me from the plain of Gennesaret to Tiberias, shot a Bonelli's eagle under the cliffs overhanging the sea of Galilee. I saw a vulture dash from the small cave just behind him, at the report of the piece, but it wheeled round a corner before we had more than a glimpse of it. We were unable, at the time, to climb up and examine the cave ; but returned in the afternoon, reinforced by Messrs. Shepherd and Bartlett to lay siege to it. We easily mounted to a ledge about twelve feet under the cave, but no bird appeared; while we were talking, a sudden rush, like the beating of the branches of a tree was heard, and a huge dark object dashed close over our heads, at a distance of not more than six feet. In wheeling circles it continued to return, and swept as near to us as prudence permitted, while Mr. Shepherd climbed up to the cavern and in a few seconds returned with one white egg, a little larger than the ordinary run of Griffon's, but of exactly the same texture. It was rather soiled and proved to be hard set. The nest was scanty, consisting chiefly of large tufts of grass with the roots laid on the floor of the cave. I have seen eggs stated to belong to this vulture very much spotted and coloured with rufous, but not more so than those of the Griffon occasionally are, but the only other egg of the species I ever obtained (in Africa) was white, like this, and perceptibly thicker than the Griffon's. This eyrie near Tiberias was by no means difficult of access, and was about two miles distant from the immense colony of Griffons in the wady Hamoun."

The nest, however, is not always on rocks, nor does the egg appear to be always pure white or larger than that of the Griffon, as may be seen from the following extracts from a paper of Lord Lilford's, which appeared in the Ibis for 1866.

" The result this evening was, a nest with five eggs of the blue Magpie, and an egg of the cinereous vulture, which last, the boys assured me, they had found on the ground at a spot much frequented by this species, which breeds in the pine-forests close at hand, and is by far the most common vulture in the Castiles. This egg is slightly smaller than those of Gyps Fulvus in my collection, and is of a uniform clouded reddish-pink colour, very much resembling some varieties of the egg of Aquila Chrysaetus. I have no hesitation in ascribing this egg to Vultur Monachus, as, although I was unfortunately too late to find the eggs in situ myself, the fragments of egg-shells found in and below several nests of this vulture, exactly corresponded with this specimen, and I found that Gyps Fulvus, of which species a few pairs used in former years to nest in a range of cliffs near the village, is now comparatively scarce in the district."

" The nest (of Vultur Monachus) was situated at the top of one of the tallest pines, and visible from some distance with the male bird seated close to it. He allowed us to approach almost to the foot of the tree, and sailed off apparently unhurt by a volley of our four barrels. Agapo was soon up to the nest, in which was a young bird of about the size of a Dorking-cock. A more unsightly specimen of the great class Aves, I never before beheld, he was covered with brownish grey down, with a bright pink cere and very pale yellow legs and feet; part of the trachea of a sheep or goat, perfectly hard and dry, completely encircled one leg; and altogether his appearance presented a combination of the absurd and repulsive, almost impossible to describe. The nest was composed of large boughs externally, and was lined with twigs and a few fragments of wool. In the foundation of the nest, which was unusually deep for that of a raptor, a pair of tree creepers, (Certhia Familiaris), had established their abode, and were rearing a family of five or six young."

Further interesting particulars of this bird's nidification, are given in Mr. C. Farman's notes on the birds of prey of central Bulgaria, which appeared in the Ibis for 1868. He says " In central Bulgaria, this is by no means a common species. I have noticed these birds only during the spring and summer, they certainly do not remain during the winter, and they are therefore (in some degree at least) migratory; nidification with this species commences early in March, somewhat earlier than with the Griffon Vulture, in proof of which I may state that on the 30th of April, 1865, I found three young birds in three successive nests of the first, whereas on the same day, I took several eggs of the Griffon Vulture fresh enough to be easily blown, while in no case did I find the eggs hatched. My experience of the following year confirmed me in this opinion, as I invariably found the young of Vultur Monachus a full fortnight, and in some cases more, in advance of Gyps Fulvus. Dr. Bree (B. Eur. I. P. 8) says of the Cinereous Vulture that " it builds among the most inaccessible rocks." This, however, I have not found to be the case, I have invariably seen the nest placed on a tree, and generally on one of no great size. In April, 1865, as just mentioned, I observed several nests of this bird, in the thickly wooded country, lying to the right of the Pravidy valley, within about three miles of the town of that name ; and they were all, without exception, placed on trees at an average height of about twenty feet from the ground. Unfortunately I nave nearly always been too late for the eggs of this bird, and have only been able to secure a single example ; I am inclined to think that it does not usually lay more than one, as I never found but one young bird in a nest. It is also probable that birds of this species return to the same nest year after year, as I found the nests of 1865 tenanted when I visited them in 1866."

That this bird does breed in the Dhoon seems probable from the following remarks furnished by my friend Captain Hutton : - :

" Vultur Monachus. Lin. V. Cinereus, young. Monarchus in Hardwicke's Illustrations is a misprint for Monachus. - : Of this bird, Jerdon says, " It is found, though rarely, in the Himalaya, occasionally descending to the plains;" at Mussooree about 5,500 feet of elevation it cannot be called rare, although at the same time, it is by no means abundant. - : It is seen all the year through, coursing about in company with G. Bengalensis, G. Fulvus and Otogyps Calms in search of carrion, all descending upon the same carcass. - : In the Dehra Dhoon, it is not so common as in the lower hills, but one was seen in the Eastern Dhoon, near Hurdwar, in January, sitting on the branch of a lofty tree beside a large nest made of dry sticks and branches of goodly size ; the nest was rather a deep bowl, rather deeper that is, than those of G. Bengalensis ; the sides and especially the bottom were of great thickness and the diameter fully 2 1/2 feet. At that time the nest was not completed within. The branches with which the nest was constructed were not merely laid one upon another in simple platform fashion, but were strongly interwoven like loose basket work. - : In the end of February, the spot was again visited, and the nest was found to be finished ; the lining being of somewhat finer sticks, with bits of rag and a few feathers apparently rubbed from the body of the bird which had evidently been sitting in it; it was, however, still empty, and no bird was seen. - : In the early part of March, the nest was again visited, but there were neither eggs nor birds; several nests were seen in the neighbourhood but all alike were abandoned, as the jungle grass had been fired beneath the trees, and even the branches of many trees had been lopped off to feed the herds of cattle. - :Although therefore we felt tolerably certain that the nest where the bird had been seen was that of V. Monachas, yet we have no certain proof that such was in reality the case.

* The numbers are those of Dr. Jerdon's work. Although i differ widely from him on many points of classification, i yet think it will, for obvious reasons, be most convenient in these present notes to adopt his arrangement. Where the scientific name, adopted by Dr. Jerdon, has been shown, by Mr. Blyth and others, liable to supersession by some other name, on the score of the priority of this latter, or for any other good cause ; i have, while retaining the number, made the necessary alteration in the name.

Where, as not unfrequently happens, Dr. Jerdon departs from the pre-established English names, calling, for instance, the " Cinereous Vulture," the great brown Vulture, " the Griffon," the Large Tawny Vulture, and the like, I have reverted to the original English names. Where I have neglected any corrections of the nature referred to in the present, or preceding note, I hope my error may be pointed out to me, for rectification in forthcoming editions.

* All dimensions are in English inches and decimals of ditto.

* What does Dr. Bree mean by saying " Feet covered with feathers above?" The whole of the feet and the lower portion of the tarsus, are as perfectly nude as feet and legs can be.

My Scrap Book
Hume, Allan Octavian, ed. My Scrap Book: Or, Rough Notes on Indian Oology and Ornithology. Vol. 1. 1869.
Title in Book: 
1. Vulture monachus
Book Author: 
Allan Octavian Hume
Page No: 
Common name: 
Cinereus Vulture
Cinereous Vulture
Aegypius monachus
Vol. 1
Term name: 

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