Vultures nature’s cleanup crew

Vultures are nature’s cleanup crew. When one thinks of vultures, several connotations spring to mind. Specifically, scavengers, ugly, gross, vulgar, dirty and diseased, to name a few. We have all seen how these birds circle the sky before descending onto a carcass, devouring them. As an illustration of the image below, vultures’ heads are often covered in blood and guts. For this reason, vultures have earned themselves some unflattering names, such as cleanup crew and nature’s undertakers.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew

Vultures do what vultures do well. 

Vultures nature's cleanup crew.

Most people do not realise how vital vultures are for our environment and the ecosystem. Vultures are under-appreciated birds of prey. They are one of the most disliked birds due to their ugliness and the role they perform.

Lappet-faced and Griffon vultures, Tanzania.
Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Lappet-faced and Griffon vultures, Tanzania.
What are vultures

Vultures are birds of prey. They are very distinctive birds, with featherless heads and necks. In addition, their wide 3-metre wingspan allows vultures to soar for long periods in the thermals. Their exceptional eyesight helps them spot a carcass from up to 6 km in the distance. Hence, they are referred to as nature’s clean up crew. They play a vital role in keeping our environment and ecosystems clean and free of rotting carcasses and preventing disease.

As shown above, vultures poke their heads inside rotting carcasses. Therefore, their featherless heads and necks mean that the flesh will not stick to their head, consequently preventing any bacteria and parasites from causing them harm. Despite the similar name, Old World Vultures and New World Vultures are not related. However, they both are scavengers and have identical biological traits.

A wake of Vultures. 

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Vultures nature's cleanup crew
what is a group of vultures called?
  • Wake – a group of vultures that are feeding
  • Kettle –  a group of vultures in flight
  • Committee, volt, or venue – a group of vultures resting on trees. 
  • Flock – a group of up to 100 vultures.
Habitat

Interestingly, vultures can be found on all continents, apart from Australia and Antarctica. New World Vultures are located in North, Central and South America. On the other hand, Old World Vultures are found in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Lappet-faced vulture feasting on remains from a cape buffalo, Tanzania.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Lappet-faced vulture feasting on remains from a cape buffalo, Tanzania.
Diet

A vultures diet consists primarily of carrion (dead animals). However, if no carrion is available, vultures have been known to hunt for small live animals, such as rats, birds, insects, and lizards.  

Griffon vulture in action.
Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Griffon vulture nature’s clean up crew.
Lifespan

The average lifespan is around 18+ years. However, some species can live up to 50 years.

Reproduction

Females mostly lay one or two eggs. Following this, both parents will share incubating and feeding the vulture chicks. Vulture chicks are dependent on their parents during their first 2-3 months of life, after which they will learn to fly and find their food. By 3-6months of age, fledgelings will, for the most part, be the same size as their parent, fully feathered and fend for themselves—Vultures mate for life.

Altercations with other scavengers are short-lived as vultures and hyenas generally share their feast of carrion.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Altercations with other scavengers are short-lived as vultures and hyenas generally share their feast of carrion.
Vulture characteristics

Coupled with their hunched bodies, large wings, and featherless heads and necks, they are not the most beautiful birds. Vultures have weak legs and blunt talons, which is why they wait until other predators have torn a carcass open before embarking on eating it. Initially, this is a job for hyenas, coyotes and eagles.

The feeding frenzy is civilised for the most part, but there is sometimes fierce competition amongst the scavengers. Furthermore, they are efficient scavengers and can consume more than 1 kg of meat in 1 minute, devouring a whole carcass, including bones, leaving no trace in a very short space of time.

Vultures urinate on their legs and feet to cool off on hot days. This trait is known as urohydrosis. The urine also helps to kill off any bacteria or parasites. They are particularly intelligent birds and have very few predators apart from humans. Vultures have been known to projectile vomit at a predator and flee as a defence mechanism.

New World Vultures are related to storks, while Old World Vultures are related to buzzards and eagles. While both Old and New World Vultures share the same featherless head and neck, exceptional eyesight, scavenging traits and ability to fly at high altitudes, they are not genetically related.

Vultures drying out their wings cooling off after feasting on their carcass.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
They are spreading wings to cool off after feasting on their carcass.
There are two groups of vultures
Old World Vultures (Accipitridae) and New World Vultures (Cathartidae).
Turkey vultures feasting on a dead penguin chick, Falkland Islands.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Turkey vultures are feasting on a dead penguin chick in the Falkland Islands.
new World vultures – seven species

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is the most abundant species. They are the only vulture that can’t kill their prey.

Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Carthates melambrotus)

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus)

King Vulture (Sarcorhamphus papa)

American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus). In the 1980s, this species was almost extinct, with only 20 individuals left globally. However, captive breeding programs have increased the vulture population to over 400 individuals, half of which have been released back into the wild. 

Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus), found in South America, has the largest wingspan of any vulture at 3.3 metres wide and is the heaviest vulture, weighing 15 kg.

characteristics

While vultures spend a lot of time soaring the thermals looking for food, they cannot detect dying animals. Instead, their strong sense of smell and exceptional eyesight is how they find their next meal. They also can hear other birds and animals feeding on dead carcases. In addition, due to their weak feet and legs, New World Vultures cannot carry prey back to their nests to feed their chicks. Instead, they regurgitate food from their meal to feed their vulture chicks.

Vultures and hyenas are mutual scavengers, Tanzania.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Vultures and hyenas are mutual scavengers Tanzania.
Old World vultures – sixteen species

Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) or Lammergeyer. These vultures live high in Africa, Europe, and the Indian subcontinent. This vulture species is the only known species of a vulture with a diet of 70-90% bones. Classified: Near threatened.

Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) is also called Kolbe’s vulture. A native species of southern Africa. Classified: endangered.

Cinerous vulture (Aegypius monachus), also called a monk, black or Eurasian black vulture. Found throughout Eurasia. Classified: near threatened.

Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), also called the Pharoah’s chicken. Found in northern Africa, southwestern Europe, and the Indian sub-continent. Classified: endangered

Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) is found in Eurasia, classified: the least concern.

Himalayan vulture (Gyps himalayensis) is one of the largest vultures. Found in the Himalayan region on the Indian continent. Classified: near threatened.

Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus), native to sub-Saharan Africa. Classified: critically endangered.

Indian vulture (Gyps indicus) is a native vulture to the Indian sub-continent. Classified: critically endangered.

Lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) is found throughout the African continent. Classified: endangered.

Palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis), also known as a Vulturine Fish-eagle. This vulture is the smallest of all vultures at 1.7kg. Found in forests and savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa. Classified: least concern.

Red-headed vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), also called Pondicherry vulture or Indian black vulture. Found in southeast Asia. Classified: critically endangered.

Ruppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppelli) lives in central Africa. This vulture is the highest-flying bird, at elevations of 11,000 metres. Classified: critically endangered.

Slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris), is found in the sub-Himalayan region of the Indian sub-continent and Southeast Asia. Classified: critically endangered.

White-backed vulture (Gyps afrianus), found in east and west Africa. Classified: critically endangered.

White-headed vulture (Trigonocepts occipitalis), endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. Classified: critically endangered.

White-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalenis), is native to South Asia and Southeast Asia. Classified: critically endangered.

Bearded or Lammergeyer vulture, Ethiopia.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Bearded or Lammergeyer vulture, Ethiopia.
characteristics

Vultures have exceptional eyesight and are able to see their food long before they can smell it. With strong feet and talons, they can grip flesh while flying. They are unable to run but move by hopping and wing flapping. Because Old World Vultures have a voicebox, they can make grunting, screeching, croaking and chattering sounds.

Hooded vultures.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
A pair of hooded vultures with a Lappet-faced vulture.
Conservation status – all vultures

Due to gross misunderstanding, humans have severely persecuted these magnificent birds for many years. Consequently, vultures are one of the most vulnerable bird species. 

Because of their declining population, vultures are currently classified as critically endangered. However, vulture numbers are rapidly declining due to hunting, poisoning, pesticides, collisions with vehicles, wind turbines, and high voltage power lines. 

Vultures’ role in the environment and ecosystem

Given their vital role in the ecosystem, vultures are often referred to as nature’s garbage collectors or its cleanup crew. Subsequently, keeping the ecosystems clean and free of old rotting and decaying carcasses. Due to a robust immune system and potent stomach acid can break down rotting flesh and diseases, such as bacteria, rabies, parasites, botulism, anthrax and viruses’ etc. On the positive side, vultures are a significant benefit for humans as they get rid of dead and rotting carcasses, which otherwise might infect wildlife, livestock and humans.

Lappet-faced vulture, Tanzania

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Lappet-faced vulture, Tanzania.
Poisoning

Human-vulture conflict due to farmers viewing vultures as livestock predators. So they shoot and poison vultures with strychnine and other poisons.

Accidental poisoning accounts for more than 60% of vulture deaths. In addition, vultures are the unfortunate victims of poisoned carcasses— as dozens of vultures feast on a single carcass. Veterinarians widely use a commonly anti-inflammatory and pain relief drug, Diclofenac, for animals, such as livestock. Consequently, this drug has lethal effects on vultures, as they feed on livestock carcases and ingest the drug leading to kidney failure. In parts of South Asia, some vulture populations have decreased by 99% due to the use of Diclofenac. For this reason, countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh have banned the use of Diclofenac. However, many countries in Europe have not prohibited using this drug in livestock. Consequently, its use continues to result in the deaths of many vultures. 

Hyena vs vulture!

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Hyena vs vulture!
Poaching

Due to a vulture’s trait of circling a dead carcass when they see or smell them, they alert rangers to discover a poachers’ whereabouts. Therefore, poachers will often poison vultures to prevent them from circling dead carcasses in the hope that rangers will not see their whereabouts.

Bushmeat trade

The illegal bushmeat trade in Africa contributes to the declining vulture population.

Bush Medicine

Meanwhile, many witch doctors believe that vulture beaks and brains have magical powers and kill vultures.

A wake of Griffon vultures.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
A wake of Griffon vultures.
Future for vultures – the unfortunate victims

Sadly, because of the global decline of vultures, some vulture species are on the brink of extinction. Therefore, conservation efforts are a significant challenge due to the extensive threats to vultures. Additionally, conservation measures require universal action to preserve and protect vultures from endangerment and extinction. Consequently, carcasses would remain and rot without vultures, spreading disease to other wildlife, livestock, and humans.

Ruppell's vulture, Tanzania.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Ruppell’s vulture, Tanzania.
VULTURES ARE THE ULTIMATE KEEPERS
OF BALANCE IN OUR ENVIRONMENT AND ECOSYSTEMS
Griffon vulture coming into land.

Vultures nature's cleanup crew
Griffon vulture coming into land.
Resources

https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-sixteen-species-of-old-world-vultures-living-today.html

https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/New_World_vulture

https://www.beautyofbirds.com/vulturesoldworld.html

https://seaworld.org/animals/facts/birds/old-world-vultures/

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