Vulture Awareness Day (4th September)

Vultures are categorized on whether they are Old World or New World vultures. There are 23 species altogether, with the New World species being found across the Americas and Caribbean and the Old World vultures being found in Africa, Asia and Europe. 

A King Vulture kept at a Bird of Prey centre on the Isle of Wight

The New World vultures include the Turkey Vulture (Cathertes aura), the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus), the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes melambrotus), the American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), the King Vulture (Sacoramphus papa), the California Condor (Cymnogyps californianus) and the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). All of these vulture species are classed as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List, except for the Condor species, with the California Condor (G. californianus) being classed as Critically Endangered (CR) and the Andean Condor (V. gryphus) classed as Vulnerable (VU). 

I think these are White-backed Vultures, photographed in the Serengeti, Tanzania
Some more white-backed vultures in the Greater Kruger, South Africa

The Old World vultures include the Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis), the Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), the Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), the Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), the White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis), the Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus), the Himalayan Vulture/Griffon (Gyps himalayensis) , the White-rumped Vulture (Gyps bengalensis), the White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus), the Indian Vulture (Gyps indicus), the Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), the Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres), the Rüppell’s Vulture/Griffon (Gyps rueppelli), the Griffon Vulture/ Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus), the Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus), and the Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos). More of these species are classed as Near Threatened (NT), Endangered (EN), or Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List than the New World Vultures. Only two of the Old World Species are classed as Least Concern and those two are the Griffon Vulture (G. fulvus) and the Palm-nut Vulture (G. angolensis). 

A Hooded Vulture from the Bird of Prey centre on the Isle of Wight.

The biggest threat to all vulture species is poaching. Poisoned carcasses are used to kill them as the carcass will attract large numbers of them and makes for an easy slaughter of a mass group of them for the poachers to take. These vultures are then used in traditional medicine or used for witch-craft. One of the most popular reasons for taking vultures is that it is believed that if you sleep with the skull of a vulture under your pillow, or smoke the brain of a vulture, you will be able to see into the future. This was thought because vultures can find carcasses from many miles away, although we know it is because they fly at some astonishing heights and have incredible vision. 

The largest vulture species is the Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), with a wingspan of almost 3.5 metres and weighing up to a whopping 15kg. Vultures are known for using thermal air currents to help them to stay in flight. 

The vultures, especially the African species (as far as I’m aware), have a certain order of feeding when it comes to a carcass. Usually, they will take over a carcass that has been left by another animal, such as a lion or hyena. But if they were to be the first animal to come across a carcass, they feed in a certain order because of their specially designed bill anatomy. The Lappet-faced and the Cape Vultures are the first to feed, this is due to them have the largest and strongest bills, making it easier work for them to open up the carcass and get to the larger bits of meat. The next species are more specialist feeders and start to take the smaller bits of meat that is harder for the larger species to get to. In this instance, that includes the White-backed and the White-headed Vultures. The last species you will see on a carcass in Africa is the Hooded Vulture. These guys have very small, tooth-pick-like bills in comparison to the others and so they are left to clean around the bones and get into all the tiny nooks and crannies that the others have missed. By feeding in this manner, it means that no part of an animal goes to waste as each species has a certain part that it eats, and therefore nothing gets missed. 

The problem with the disappearance of vultures, is that you can see when certain species haven’t turned up to a carcass as there will be lots of left over bits of meat. This becomes problematic as vultures form a disease control team. A vulture’s stomach acid is so strong that it can kill diseases such as anthrax. Without these guys as the clean-up and disease control team, we are only letting ourselves is for much worse outbreaks of disease than Covid. 

Resources:

  • IUCN Red List
  • Birds of the World – Lynx Edicions

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