In characterizing the present genus, were we to look solely at the animal such as we have it daily before our eyes, the distinction between it and all the other Ruminants is too striking to be for a moment mistaken. But the insensible gradations which connect this familiar denizen of our downs and pastures with the untamed native of the desert and the precipice, and the close affinity which subsists between the latter and the goats, render it almost impossible to isolate them by any satisfactory characters. On the present occasion we shall content ourselves with observing that the sheep may generally be distinguished by the direction of their horns, by the elevation of their profile, and by their want of beard: characters neither essential nor infallible, but the best that can be offered.
These peculiarities of habit, by which the Vultures are strikingly contrasted not merely with the Eagles, but even with the smallest of the Falcon tribe, are the necessary result of their organisation. Their beak, it is true, is like that of the Eagles strongly curved at the point alone, and they also possess all the technical characters of the Rapacious Order; but their talons are far inferior, both in size and in the degree of their curvature, and they are consequently unable to grasp their prey with sufficient force to transport it through the air. Their diminished power of flight renders them incapable of soaring upwards to search abroad with piercing eye for the objects of their rapacity; and they are therefore left dependent upon the acute sensibility of their nostrils, which amply supplies the deficiency. Of the external characters which they exhibit the most remarkable is derived from the want of plumage on the head and neck, which are covered in the greater number of the species by nothing more than a sort of down or by short and smooth hairs. The object of this provision appears to be to enable them to bury as it were their heads in the carrion on which they feed, without exposing their plumage to be soiled by the filth which it might otherwise contract. Their eyes are placed on a level with their cheeks; their heads are rounded above; they have most frequently a ruff of considerable extent round the lower part of their necks; and their legs are usually bare of feathers and covered with large scales. Their very attitudes offer the most perfect contrast to those of the Eagles; the latter constantly maintaining a bold upright posture, with their wings closely pressed to their sides, and their tails elevated, while the Vultures on the contrary are always seen bending forwards in a crouching position, with their wings depressed and separated from their bodies, and their tails trailing upon the ground.
Our figure was taken from the stuffed skin which is preserved in the Museum of the Zoological Society.