Plumage colour and feather structure of the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

Authors

  • C. J. Brown,

    1. Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Natal, PO Box 375, Pietermaritzburg, 3200, RSA
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    • *Ornithology Section, Ministry of Wildlife, Conservation and Tourism, Private Bag 13306, Windhoek, Namibia

  • A. G. Bruton

    1. Electron Microscope Unit, University of Natal, PO Box 375, Pietermaritzburg, 3200, RSA
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Abstract

The rufous colouring on the feathers of the under parts of adult bearded vultures Gypaetus barbatus, studied by scanning electron microscopy, energy-dispersive X-ray microanalysis and X-ray diffraction analysis, is caused by an external deposit of iron oxide in the ferrihydrite state. Unstained feathers, e.g. in captive birds, are pure white. The feathers of young birds have similar coatings of iron oxide to those of adults, but because the feathers are pigmented pale to dark brown (dependent on age), the rusty colour is partly or totally obscured. The intensity of the colour in adult birds varies between individuals and within individuals with time; the more worn the feathers the more iron oxide they can hold. After heavy rainfall up to 30% of adult birds can become appreciably paler. Birds take about 6 days (range–9 days) to regain normal colouring. Iron oxide accumulates mainly in the axes of shafts and barbs, barbs and barbules and barbules and hamuli, and forms blob-like deposits at the ends of barbs and barbules on the outer layers of feathers. Iron oxide is probably acquired passively when bearded vultures come into contact with deposits in caves and on ledges on cliffs. The colour is then spread by preening. Iron oxide imparts camouflage to adult birds, but also reduces wear on the outer layer of feathers, makes feathers more rigid and probably helps control ectoparasites.

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