VULTURES, a number of carrion-eating birds. They are recognizable by their blunt claws, in which they differ from other birds of prey, and their bald heads (except for the bearded vulture). These are useful birds since they act as scavengers, and formerly were very common in Israel. In recent times, however, they have diminished in number, and some species are in danger of extinction due to the use of chemical pesticides to kill various animals (like jackals and mice), causing the vultures to die from eating the poisoned carcasses. Four species of vulture are mentioned in the Bible: nesher (AV, "eagle"; JPS, "great vulture"), ozniyyah (AV and JPS, "osprey"), peres (AV, "ossifrage"; JPS, "bearded vulture"), and raḥam (AV, "gier-eagle"; JPS, "common vulture"). The first three are mentioned together as forbidden for food (Lev. 11: 13, Deut. 14: 12).
There is no doubt that the nesher (נֶשֶׁר) of the Bible is the griffon vulture – Gyps fulvus. It is the largest of Israel's carnivorous birds, its outstretched wings sometimes attaining a span of ten feet. It does not prey on living things but feeds on carcasses; as mentioned in Job (39: 27–30): "She dwelleth… on the rock…. From thence she spieth out the prey; her eyes behold it afar off… and where the slain are, there is she." It has no feathers on its neck to prevent the blood of the carcass from congealing when the vulture puts its head inside it, and hence its designation of "baldhead" (Micah 1: 16). It is one of the longest-lived birds (cf. Ps. 103: 5). The pair of vultures builds its nest on the peaks of lofty rocks (Jer. 49: 16; etc.). The fledgling develops slowly, and the parents tend it with devotion and train it to fly (cf. Deut. 32: 11). (On the identification of the nesher with the eagle, see *Eagle .) The name ozniyyah (עָזְנִיּה) appears to be connected with the bird's strength; it is called oz ("strength") in the Mishnah, which states that articles used to be made from its wings (Kel. 17: 14). Whereas the griffon vulture was common near settlements, it was pointed out that the ozniyyah was found only in places far away from settlements (Ḥul. 62a). The reference is to the black vulture, which is similar in build to the griffon vulture, but has only a bald head and not a bare neck. Two species are found in Israel, the Aegypius monachus, which is dark brown and very rare, and the Aegypius tracheliotus, found in the Negev and distinguished from the former by its brightly colored belly.
The Talmud (ibid.) notes that like the ozniyyah the peres (פֶּרֶס) is not found in inhabited localities. It is identified with the bearded vulture, the Gypaetus barbatus. It is presumed that the name peres derives from the fact that it breaks (pores, פּוֹרֵס) the bones of carcasses by dropping them from a height in order to eat the marrow. It is recognizable by the hairy beard fringe at the end of its beak, and is widely dispersed geographically, being found in southern Europe, Africa, and Asia, although in all these places it is rare. In Israel too, in the mountains of the Negev, only solitary pairs are found. The raḥam (Deut. 14: 17, רָחָמָה) is also mentioned as a bird forbidden as food (Lev. 11: 18), and its similar name in Arabic is the basis of its identification with the Neophron percnopterus, the Egyptian vulture. It is the smallest of Israel vultures and is found in flocks near garbage heaps where it feeds on carcasses and insects. When young it is brown in color and later becomes white. In the Talmud the raḥam is identified with a bird called the sherakrak, which, according to the aggadah, if it will sit upon the ground and chirp, thus gives a sign of the advent of the Messiah (Ḥul. 63a). Apparently the reference is to a bird of the genus Merops which is never seen resting on the ground.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.