Updated: Dec 27, 2019
The second piece in my 'Endangered Underdog' series, “Bone Breaker”, an oil on 2’x3’ canvas, takes a closer look at the notoriously badass lammergeier, otherwise known as the ‘Bearded Vulture’. These ferocious looking birds reside primarily in mountainous regions throughout Europe. By the 1990s in parts of Eastern Europe, due to old superstitions and fears, the species was hunted to near extinction. Luckily, nowadays the birds have been moved up from 'Endangered' to ‘Near Threatened’ by the IUCN (International Union of Conservation for Nature) thanks to the efforts of environmental groups. Some of these groups include the Vulture Conservation Foundation, Asters, and Nikela.
Contrary to old superstitions and first impressions, the bearded vulture does not, in fact, spend its time snacking on innocent sheep and little babies. Actually, these birds don’t even hunt prey, avoiding most meat altogether and preferring, instead, the sun-bleached bones left behind by other predators. In order to easily consume the bones, they are known to fly them high into the air and let them drop and shatter on rocks below, earning them the nickname ‘Bone Breaker’. This unusual bone-shattering practice combined with their intimidating size (some can grow up to four feet tall!) and an unexplained penchant for dying their feathers fiery red certainly explains the inclination to see the species as closer related to terrifying, child-snatching dragons rather than harmless birds.
However, despite their unsettling image, the Bearded Vulture, like all other vultures, plays an essential role in ecosystems, keeping them clean and preventing the spread of diseases. The extremely corrosive stomach acid that these birds have not only dissolves bones, but also breaks down deadly diseases often contained in animal corpses such as anthrax, botulinum toxins, rabies, and hog cholera that would otherwise be fatal to other scavengers. Ultimately, these ominous vegetarians, though gothically flamboyant in appearance and eating habits, are more akin to natures fashion-forward garbage collectors than child-eating monsters.
In my work, "Bone Breaker", I aimed to capture the bird in a more vulnerable state while still maintaining its "ferocious" attitude. The act of the vultures staining their feathers red remains unclear to scientists, but is speculated to be a symbol of status among the species. Iron-oxidized soil (the source of the red pigment) is a difficult thing to find in the mountainous regions where the birds reside, and so, the red pigment most likely represents and communicates the birds strength and wherewithal to find the iron-rich mud. Because of this, the dying of their feathers is done in secret (only having been observed by those in captivity) and is thus a very private and vulnerable moment. This vulnerable moment is captured in the painting, portraying the bird in the middle of this unusual ritual.
The bone crown that the vulture wears plays into not only the obvious 'Bone Breaker' reputation, but is also meant to reflect the iconography of Christ's crown of thorns. Misunderstandings and old fears of the species was largely what lead to its near demise and endangerment over the years. However, despite its role as the 'sacrificial lamb', the population of the Bearded Vulture has steadily been making a 'resurrection' these past few years. Overall, this piece was meant to shine a gentler light on a species known to be one of the 'hardest' and downright metal in the animal kingdom. While the Bearded Vulture is no doubt not a species to be trifled with, it is important to recognize that it is truly an asset to its ecosystem and essentially harmless to us. It is not a species to be fearful of, but rather one to be intrigued by and protected.