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A day with the Vultures

Life has been rather chaotic recently and building work has got in the way of blog writing and creativity.  However back in September Murray and myself went on a terrific ‘Meet the Vultures ‘ experience day at the Hawk Conservancy Trust near Andover. Below, I am holding one of their Hooded Vultures.

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Below is Boe, a juvenile Egyptian Vulture. The adult Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is white with a striking yellow face it is also called the white scavenger vulture or pharaoh’s chicken. It is a small old world vulture and the only member of the genus Neophron. Widely distributed; the Egyptian vulture is found from southwestern Europe and northern Africa to India.  Egyptian vultures feed mainly on carrion but are opportunistic and will also prey on small mammals, birds, and reptiles. They also feed on the eggs of other birds, breaking larger ones by tossing a large pebble onto them. The use of tools is rare in birds and apart from the use of a pebble as a hammer, Egyptian vultures also use twigs to roll up wool for use in their nest. Like so many vultures numbers of this species have declined in the 20th century and is categorised as endangered.

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Below is Phyllis a stunning King Vulture.

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The king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa) is a large bird  found in Central and South America. It is a member of the New World Vulture family Cathartidae. They live mainly in tropical lowland forests.  Although predominantly a carrion feeder they are also opportunistic and are known to scavenge alongside Capuchin monkeys eating monkey leftovers or eating invertebrates that the Monkeys have disturbed.  They are also known to follow Turkey vultures to food and then use their large size to dominate smaller vultures species at the carcass.

Large and predominantly white, the king vulture has gray to black ruff, flight, and tail feathers. The head and neck are bald, with the skin color varying, including yellow, orange, blue, purple, and red. The king vulture has a very noticeable yellow fleshy caruncle on its beak. This vulture is a scavenger and it often makes the initial cut into a fresh carcass.  King vultures have been known to live for up to 30 years in captivity.

King vultures were popular figures in the Mayan codices as well as in medicine and local folklore. Despite being currently listed as least concern by the IUCN, they are decreasing in number, due primarily to habitat loss.

Below is Burdock, one of the Trust’s Turkey Vultures.

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The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), also known in some North American regions as the  turkey buzzard, it is the most widespread of the New World Vultures. It is one of three species in the genus Cathartes  of the family Cathartidae.  It is found from southern Canada to the bottom of South America. It inhabits a variety of open and semi-open areas, including subtropical forests, shrublands, pastures, and deserts.

The turkey vulture is a scavenger feeding  almost exclusively on carrion.  It finds its food using its keen eyes and sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gases produced by the beginnings of the process of decay in dead animals.  It roosts in large community groups. 

‘The ability to forage by smell is uncommon in the avian world. It travels low to the ground to pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced at the beginnings of decay in dead animals. The olfactory lobe of its brain, responsible for processing smells, is particularly large compared to that of other animals. This heightened ability to detect odours allows it to search for carrion below the forest canopy. King vultures, black vultures, and condors, which lack the ability to smell carrion, follow the turkey vulture to carcasses. The turkey vulture arrives first at the carcass, or with greater yellow-headed vultures or lesser yellow-headed vultures, which also share the ability to smell carrion. It displaces the yellow-headed vultures from carcasses due to its larger size, but is displaced in turn by the king vulture and both types of condor, which make the first cut into the skin of the dead animal. This allows the smaller, weaker-billed turkey vulture access to food, because it cannot tear the tough hides of larger animals on its own. This is an example of mutual dependence between species.’  It currently has a conservation status of least concern.

The African White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus) had been one of the most common African vulture species in much of sub-Saharan Africa, avoiding only the denser forests and very dry habitats. Recently, however, scientists are reporting alarming population declines in this species’ numbers in West Africa, particularly in unprotected areas. Similar drastic declines have also been documented in East Africa. It took biologists a while to discover the cause of these declines, the answer was shocking.

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Vulture numbers in Africa are dropping dramatically due to a carbamate pesticide called Carbofuran or Furadan. This pesticide is being misused by livestock owners and some pastoralists to poison predators like lions and hyenas that attack their livestock. If Furadan is sprinkled on a dead cow the wild animals  that subsequently eat the carcass die too. This affects not only lions and hyenas, but also Tawny Eagles and vultures. Populations of White-backed Vultures, Rüppell’s Vultures and Hooded Vultures have been so badly affected by these poisonings that they are threatened with extinction.

Unfortunately,  poachers are also using pesticides to poison vultures for other reasons. When a poacher illegally kills an elephant, rhino or any other animal, they don’t want the authorities to know about it. For example, if they kill an elephant and take its tusks, leaving the rest of the carcass behind, vultures will soon come to feed. If park rangers see vultures circling in the sky, they know that something has died and may investigate. To cover up their crimes, poachers lace the carcass of the animal with a pesticide. When vultures comes down and feed, they get sick and die, this crime allows the poachers to escape before anyone learns what they have done.

Despite efforts to ban it, Furadan is still cheap and available over the counter in Kenya and other countries.

The story of these fabulous creatures is fascinating and its great to see places like the Hawk Conservancy working so hard to help creatures in the wild and educate us about this crisis in this country.  Vultures, whether you like them or loath them are remarkable creatures who play a vital part in their ecosystems.  Their loss will have catastrophic effects on their environments.

 

I really recommend the Vulture experience day at the Trust you can read more about it here.  I was inspired by these birds  to make the first (of hopefully a few) vulture pieces.  You can read about this piece on my blog here.

You can read more about their plight in this National Geographic article from 2015.

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