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Vultures Facts & Info

Vultures are the archetypal villain of the African bush.

vulture facts and info

Vultures

Often being portrayed as evil and motley, these birds are not what come to mind when we speak of warm and fuzzy. But are they really as bad as they are made out to be, or are they just perfectly designed to fit a less glamorous yet important role in our natural areas?

Vultures Facts & Info

Vultures of Southern Africa

 

There are nine vulture species found in southern Africa, all are large powerful birds with massive wingspans that spend most of the day aloft in search of carrion to eat. These birds are fitted with a large hooked shape bills designed for tearing through the flesh, tendons and skin of big mammal species. Almost all species are carnivorous except for the aberrant Palm Nut vulture that is known for its vegetarian intake.

 List of some South African species and their conservation status:

  • White-Backed Vulture – Critically Endangered
  • Cape Vulture – Endangered
  • Egyptian Vulture – Endangered
  • Hooded Vulture – Critically Endangered
  • Lappet-Faced Vulture – Endangered
  • White-Headed Vulture – Critically Endangered

The general feeding behavior of vultures around a carcass is something that may resemble an end-of-year sale at a department store. It starts with a mad scramble for the doors, followed by shoving and jostling at the bargain counters and ends with the most robust and pushy customers staggering off with their spoils, leaving the depleted pickings for the latecomers. It is surely a sight to behold, the combination of the smell and noise, with bloody birds emerging with full crops from the carcass is a spectacle of note.

There is however a general pecking order among-st vulture species at these feeding frenzies, mostly dictated by numbers and size. Vultures, although known for their spectacular eye sight, are often led to carcasses by Bateleurs, these birds have a remarkable ability to spot carrion, and their low-circling decent is a signal to an armada of scavenging species that there is something of interest down there.  Next arrivals are usually the smaller White-headed and Hooded vultures who wearily watch the carcass alongside the Bateleur, before the bravest of them start to drop down and approach the carcass. These smaller vultures usually don’t have a lot of time before the real carcass hogs arrive, the White Backed Vultures. These vultures all dropping in on the carcass in large numbers with their pig-like squeals and flapping wings all jostling and fighting for space make quick work of the carcass with the White-headed and Hooded Vultures being swept aside by the chaotic behavior of the Whitebacks. Almost too late usually the Lappet-faced Vultures (the largest of our species) plane in and land with a bounce on the ground. With wings spread open they advance forward, clearing their path with their sheer size and demeanor, often getting side tracked in quarreling with other vultures. They usually take what’s leftover such as skin and bones and tougher pieces of meat that their big strong bills allow them to deal with better than other vulture species in anyway.

So there is order among-st chaos after all at these vulture feeding frenzies. It may take a mere few minutes for an average sized carcass of about 50 kg to be reduced to  just bones. All the noise usually will attract the attention of nearby scavengers of the larger variety such as Hyenas or even Lion, so if you do come across some vultures feeding on safari it may be worth your while sticking around to see what else may appear. By taking on the role as the so called ‘garbage ‘removers of the bush these birds play an incredibly important role in removing centers of disease  and bacteria such as anthrax and botulism, that may spread from these sights.

Unfortunately vulture populations are facing a continual and rapid decline in their numbers over the southern African region owed to many different threats. These birds fall victim to contaminated food supplies from certain drugs used to treat livestock - that are poisonous to vultures.  They inadvertently ingest pest control poisons intended for other animals and electrocution from collisions with power-lines are critical issues that lead to the deaths of many vulture species. Vultures also face a huge threat from the harvesting of body parts for traditional medicines in southern Africa. It is believed that they contain the powers of premonition or foresight and those ceremonies using the birds’ brains can transfer these powers to a person. Possessing a foot of vulture is also believed to bring good luck. With more than 60 percent of the South African population still consulting traditional healers, the use of protected species’ body parts will be a persisting problem to address in the future.

These grossly underrated birds are heading towards local extinction in many regions if these serious threats are not addressed soon. Studies show that a disappearance of these birds may lead to severe ecosystem imbalances.  Raising the profile and public perception of these birds may lead to increased conservation efforts for them as it has done so for many previously underrated animals such as the African Wild Dog in recent years. They way respond to certain species may have a direct impact on whether or not they have a future.

So please support conservation efforts for the many threatened and endangered vulture species in southern Africa today, educate your children on the importance of species instead of stigmatizing them as this may all have an impact on how they are perceived by the greater public in future.

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Vultures Facts & Info

African White-Backed Vulture

Scientific Name: Gyps africanus (Salvadori, 1865)
English: White-backed Vulture
AFR: Witrugaasvoël

Scientific classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Falconiformes

Family: Accipitridae

Genus: Gyps

Species: africanus

vulture white-backed info

Distribution, Habitat and Status

  • The African White-backed Vulture is an Old World vulture.
  • They are the most widespread and common in Africa. The African white backed is Endemic to
  • They are found very high above sea level as high as up to 3000m above sea level.
  • They make their nests on cliffs and usually lay only 1 egg per year – they nest in loose colonies.
  • They are extinct in Nigeria as a breeding specie.
  • They are classified as lowland species that have a preference for woodland.
  • South Africa only has an estimate of 40,000 individuals left.

Distinctive Behaviour

  • Breeding is done at the start of the dry season and nesting is in loose colonies og between 2 up to 13 birds
  • Nests consist of sticks lined with grass and leaves and is usually made in the fork or crown of a tress
  • These vultures use thermals high in the sky to soar and spend hours looking for carrion.
  • Feeding is done in large numbers at the carcass and often a lot of “sibling rivalry” takes place.

Appearance

  • They have bald heads and long necks
  • They colour from brown to cream with dark tail and flight feathers.
  • They have white rumps
  • Juvenile birds are darker.
  • Length: 89-98 cm
  • Wingspan: 210-220 cm
  • Weight: 4,2-7,2 kg0

Reproduction

 

  • They are a tree nesting specie but not much data is available on breeding and success.
  • The female lays a single egg
  • Incubation is share amongst the breeding pair
  • The pale grey chick is fed by both parents
  • Chicks fledge the nest at around 120 to 130 days of age

Cape Vulture

 

Scientific Name:

Gyps coprotheres (faeces-eating vulture) (Forster, 1798)

English: Cape Griffon Vulture, Cape Vulture, Kolbe’s Griffon
AFR: Kransaasvoël

Scientific classification:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Falconiformes

Family: Accipitridae

Genus: Gyps

Species: coprotheres

vultures cape vulture facts

Distribution, Habitat and Status

  • The Cape vulture is an old world vulture
  • They are restricted to southern Africa with main colonies in South Africa and Botswana
  • They are now extinct as a breeding species in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.
  • Approximately 10 000 individuals’ left and 4000 breeding pairs.
  • Breed and roost on cliff face ledges.

Distinctive Behaviour

  • Breeding is done in colonies of several hundred birds
  • Nests are built of sticks and are situated on high cliffs (cliffs become white streaked from all the bird droppings)
  • Birds are often seen sunbathing and soaring around the nest
  • They descend in large numbers to feed on carrion
  • Arguing over food is common amongst them
  • They are incredibly clean birds who bathe after eating and preen until they are spotless again

Appearance

  • They are heavy longed necked vultures
  • They are pale cream with black flight feather; they have dark blobs along the greater wing coverts.
  • The bill and cere are black and they have yellow eyes with blue skin.
  • Juveniles are darker in colour with pink neck skin and dark eyes.
  • Height: Very large about 95cm tall
  • Wingspan is 2.55 meters
  • Weight average 11kgs.

Reproduction

  • Females lay a single egg and shares responsibilities of feeding and incubation between the male and female.
  • Male and female pair is monogamous for life and they breed in winter.
  • Nesting sites are reused or rebuilt with sticks
  • Incubation period is 54 days and duties are shared by both parents.

Chicks only venture from the nest at four months

Egyptian Vulture

 

Scientific Name: Neophron percnopterus (Linnaeus, 1758)

English: White scavenger vulture, Egyptian EagleAFR: Egiptiese Aasvoël

Scientific classification:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Accipitriformes

Family: Accipitridae

Genus: Neophron

Species: percnopterus

Egyptian info and facts

Distribution, Habitat and Status

  • The Egyptian Vulture is an old world vulture
  • They are regionally extinct in South Africa
  • The estimated population 20 000 – 61 000 and between 13 000 and 41 000 mature individuals.
  • Roosting sites vary throughout the world and is typically done on ledges, cliffs and rocky outcrops
  • In India they have been seen making nests in buildings and rarely on the ground

 

Distinctive Behaviour

  • Egyptians vultures are usually seen on their own or in pairs soaring in thermals or perched on the ground or on top of buildings
  • When walking on the ground they have a waddle.
  • Their diet consists of a range of food including mamma feaces (incl. human), insects, carrion, vegetable matter and sometimes small animals
  • At a feeding frenzy on a carcass they are shy and will hang back until larger species leave the carcass.
  • Their nests are made of sticks and lined with masses of wool, hair, rags or the remains of food, and measures 1.5 metres across.

Appearance

  • 55-65 cm tall
  • Wingspan is 1.55m – 107m
  • Weight: 1.6-2.2kg
  • Adults have largely white to pale grey plumage, which contrasts markedly with the black flight-feathers and the bold yellow bare skin on the face.
  • The long, narrow bill has a yellow, ending with a black tip.
  • The tail is short and wedge-shaped.
  • The legs may be greyish-white, pink or pale yellow.
  • Juveniles are largely dark brown with contrasting area of pale buff.

Reproduction

  • Nesting is done on cliffs and two eggs per clutch are laid
  • Eggs are incubated by both parent for 42 days
  • Fledging of chicks take place at between 70 – 85 days

Hooded Vulture

 

Scientific Name: Necrosyrtes monachus (“a monk-like (bird) that drags away the dead)(Temminck, 1823)

English: Hooded Vulture
AFR: Monnikaasvoël

Scientific classification:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Acciptriformes

Family: Accipitridae

Genus: Necrosyrtes

Species: monachus

hooded vulture facts

Distribution, Habitat and Status

  • The hooded vulture is an old world vulture
  • They are endemic to southern Africa
  • The species is often associated with human settlements, but is also found in open grassland, forest edge, wooded savannah, and desert and along coasts, occurring up to 4,000 m, but is most numerous below 1,800 m.
  • The Hooded Vulture is one of the data deficient tree nesting species, following evidence of declines across its range; the total population has been estimated at a maximum of 197,000 individuals.

Distinctive Behaviour

  • Roosts and builds its nests in Baobab trees most commonly.
  • The feed on insects, carrion and are known to follow ploughs to eat exposed larvae and insects, as well as making use of rubbish dumps for carrion.
  • The adults are very quiet and hardly vocalise.

Appearance

  • Between 67 -70 cm tall with females being smaller than males
  • Weight: 2 kg
  • Wingspan : 1.6m
  • They are a smaller scruffy looking vulture with long thin bills, bare crowns
  • They have conspicuous ear holes and downy necks and hind neck
  • When they perch they are hunched over with wings drooping
  • Juveniles have a pale blue face and hood and dark brown instead of pale beige
  • They are smaller and shyer than other vultures.

 

Reproduction

  • Breeding in South Africa occurs between May and December
  • They nest in trees and lays a clutch of one egg
  • Incubation is around 46-54 days and fledging takes place between 80 – 130 days
  • Little is known about breeding and habits

Young depend on their parents until the age of 3-4 months

White Headed Vulture

 

Scientific Name: Trigonoceps occipitalis (Burchell, 1824)

English: White headed Vulture
AFR: Witkopaasvoël

Scientific classification:

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Acciptriformes

Family: Accipitridae

Genus: Trigonoceps

Species: occipitalis

white headed vulture facts and info

Distribution, Habitat and Status

  • It is endemic throughout sub-Saharan Africa, occurring from Senegal and Gambia east to Somalia and south to South Africa and Swaziland
  • There are approximately 5,500 birds are left globally

Distinctive Behaviour

  • It generally avoids human habitation.
  • They maintain a territory and may generally fly lower than other vultures
  • They are often the first vulture species to arrive at carcasses.
  • This vulture prefers freshly killed prey, unlike other vulture species.
  • At a carcass they dominate and will push all the others out of their way, except for the powerful Lappet-faced Vulture.
  • Unusually for vultures, they are very nimble on the ground and fights by leaping into the air and lashing out with their strong talons.
  • They roost at night in trees either alone or in pairs, being very shy vultures.

Appearance

  • Height - 78 – 85cm
  • They are a vulture with predominantly blackish and white plumage as an adult. Broad triangular bald head, white down on crown and nape forming a slight crest.
  • Bare pink skin around eyes, checks and front of the neck.
  • Strong hooked bill is orange with a black tip.
  • Cere and base of the bill are blue.
  • Eyes are small and dull orange.  Ruffed white legs and belly separated from downy white head by its striking black breast. Black ruff. Large wings are brown with white edges
  • We can see a white line along the ends of greater underwing coverts.
  • Flight feathers and tail are black. Bare legs and talons are pinkish orange.
  • Brownish top of head, and white mottling on mantle.
  • Wingspan: 2.3m; Weight: 3.3 to 5.3kg.

Reproduction

  • . They nest on tall tree tops and usually lay one egg per year.
  • Incubation lasts about 43 to 54 days, and is shared by both parents.
  • Fledging takes place at about 115 days, and is fed by parents for up to another six months.

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