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The cinereous vulture (Aegypius monachus) is a large raptorial bird that is distributed through much of Eurasia. It is also known as the black vulture, monk vulture, or Eurasian black vulture. It is a member of the family Accipitridae, which also includes many other diurnal raptors such as kites, buzzards and harriers. It is one of the two largest Old World vultures, attaining a maximum size of 14 kg, 1.2 m long and 3.1 m across the wings
The genus name Aegypius is a Greek word (αἰγυπιός) for 'vulture', or a bird not unlike one; Aelian describes the aegypius as "halfway between a vulture (gyps) and an eagle". Some authorities think this a good description of a lammergeier; others do not. Aegypius is the eponym of the species, whatever it was. The English name 'black vulture' refers to the plumage colour, while 'monk vulture', a direct translation of its German name Mönchsgeier, refers to the bald head and ruff of neck feathers like a monk's cowl. 'Cinereous vulture' (Latin cineraceus, ash-coloured; pale, whitish grey), was a deliberate attempt to rename it with a new name distinct from the American black vulture.
This bird is an Old World vulture, and is only distantly related to the New World vultures, which are in a separate family, Cathartidae, of the same order. It is therefore not directly related to the much smaller American black vulture (Coragyps atratus) despite the similar name and coloration.
The cinereous vulture is believed to be the largest true bird of prey in the world. The condors, which may be marginally larger, are now generally considered unrelated to the true raptors. The Himalayan griffon vulture (Gyps himalayensis) is the only close extant rival to the size of the cinereous, with a similar average wingspan, weight and a longer overall length, thanks to a distinctly longer neck. The largest cinereous vultures exceed the weight and wingspan of the largest Himalayan griffon, and the cinereous is the larger species going on standard measurements. Females are slightly larger than males. This huge bird measures 98–120 cm (3 ft 3 in–3 ft 11 in) long with a 2.5–3.1 m (8 ft 2 in–10 ft 2 in) wingspan. Males can weigh from 6.3 to 11.5 kg (14 to 25 lb), whereas females can weigh from 7.5 to 14 kg (17 to 31 lb). It is thus one of the world's heaviest flying birds.Despite limited genetic variation in the species, body size increases from west to east, with the birds from southwest Europe (Spain and south France) averaging about 10% smaller than the vultures from central Asia (Manchuria, Mongolia and northern China). Among standard measurements, the wing chord is 73–89 cm (29–35 in), the tail is 33–41 cm (13–16 in) and the tarsus is 12–14.6 cm (4.7–5.7 in).
The cinereous vulture is distinctly dark, with the whole body being brown excepting the pale head in adults, which is covered in fine blackish down. This down is absent in the closely related lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos). The skin of the head and neck is bluish-gray and a paler whitish color above the eye. The adult has brown eyes, a purplish cere, a blue-gray bill and pale blue-gray legs. The primary quills are often actually black. From a distance, flying birds can easily appear all black. The immature plumage is sepia-brown above, with a much paler underside than in adults. Immature cinereous vultures have grey down on the head, a pale mauve cere and grey legs. The massive bill is the largest of any living accipiterid, a feature enhanced by the relatively small skull of the species. The exposed culmen of the cinereous vulture measures 8–9 cm (3.1–3.5 in). The wings, with serrated leading edges, are held straight or slightly arched in flight and are broad, sometimes referred to as "barn door wings". Their flight is slow and buoyant, with deep, heavy flaps when necessary. The combination of huge size and dark coloration renders the cinereous vulture relatively distinct, especially against smaller raptors such as eagles or hawks. The most similar-shaped species, the lappet-faced vulture (with which there might be limited range overlap in the southern Middle East), is distinguished by its bare, pinkish head and contrasting plumage. On the lappet-face, the thighs and belly are whitish in adult birds against black to brownish over the remainder of the plumage. All potential Gyps vultures are distinguished by having paler, often streaky plumage, with bulging wing primaries giving them a less evenly broad-winged form. cinereous vultures are generally very silent, with a few querulous mewing, roaring or guttural cries solely between adults and their offspring at the nest site
The cinereous vulture is a Eurasian species. The western limits of its range are in Spain and inland Portugal, with a reintroduced population in south France. They are found discontinuously to Greece, Turkey and throughout the central Middle East. Their range continues through Afghanistan eastwards to northern India to its eastern limits in central Asia, where they breed in northern Manchuria, Mongolia and Korea. Their range is fragmented especially throughout their European range. It is generally a permanent resident except in those parts of its range where hard winters cause limited altitudinal movement and for juveniles when they reach breeding maturity. In the eastern limits of its range, birds from the northernmost reaches may migrate down to southern Korea and China. A limited migration has also been reported in the Middle East but is not common.
This vulture is a bird of hilly, mountainous areas, especially favoring dry semi-open habitats such as meadows at high altitudes over much of the range. Nesting usually occurs near the tree line in the mountains. They are always associated with undisturbed, remote areas with limited human disturbance. They forage for carcasses over various kinds of terrain, including steppe, grasslands, open woodlands, along riparian habitats or any kind of mountainous habitat. In their current European range and through the Caucasus and Middle East, cinereous vultures are found from 100 to 2,000 m (330 to 6,560 ft) in elevation, while in their Asian distribution, they are typically found at higher elevations. Two habitat types were found to be preferred by the species in China and Tibet. Some cinereous vultures in these areas live in mountainous forests and shrubland from 800 to 3,800 m (2,600 to 12,500 ft), while the others preferred arid or semi-arid alpine meadows and grasslands at 3,800 to 4,500 m (12,500 to 14,800 ft) in elevation. This species can fly at a very high altitude. One cinereous vulture was observed at an elevation of 6,970 m (22,870 ft) on Mount Everest. It has a specialised haemoglobin alphaD subunit of high oxygen affinity which makes it possible to take up oxygen efficiently despite the low partial pressure in the upper troposphere. Juvenile and immature cinereous vultures, especially those in the northern stretches of the species range, may move large distances across undeveloped open-dry habitats in response to snowfall or high summer temperatures
Status and conservation
The cinereous vulture has declined over most of its range in the last 200 years in part due to poisoning by eating poisoned bait put out to kill dogs and other predators, and to higher hygiene standards reducing the amount of available carrion; it is currently listed as Near Threatened. Vultures of all species, although not the target of poisoning operations, may be shot on sight by locals. Trapping and hunting of cinereous vultures is particularly prevalent in China and Russia. Perhaps an even greater threat to this desolation-loving species is development and habitat destruction. Nests, often fairly low in the main fork of a tree, are relatively easy to access and thus have been historically compromised by egg and firewood collectors regularly. The decline has been the greatest in the western half of the range, with extinction in many European countries (France, Italy, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Albania, Moldova, Romania) and its entire breeding range in northwest Africa (Morocco and Algeria). They no longer nest in Israel. More recently, protection and deliberate feeding schemes have allowed some local recoveries in numbers, particularly in Spain, where numbers increased to about 1,000 pairs by 1992 after an earlier decline to 200 pairs in 1970. This colony have now spread its breeding grounds to Portugal. Elsewhere in Europe, very small but increasing numbers breed in Bulgaria and Greece, and a re-introduction scheme is under way in France. Trends in the small populations in Ukraine (Crimea) and European Russia, and in Asian populations, are not well recorded. In the former USSR, it is still threatened by illegal capture for zoos, and in Tibet by rodenticides. It is a regular winter visitor around the coastal areas of Pakistan in small numbers. As of the turn of the 21st century, the worldwide population of cinereous vultures is estimated at 4500–5000 individuals
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