As much as I love the oceans it’s time to jump up out of the water and into the air because September 1st is International Vulture Awareness Day! Now, a lot of people don’t like vultures. They think they’re ugly birds and it grosses people out that they eat dead, decomposing things. What people need to understand is that vultures are an ecologically important group of birds that should get respect and protection just like any other species.
There are 22 species of vultures; 15 of those are classified as Old-World Vultures (Europe, Africa, Asia) and belong to the family Accipitridae, whiile the other 7 are New-World Vultures (the Americas) belong to the family Cathartidae. In my part of the world there is only a single of these species, the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). I see them daily during the warmer months circling around town looking for a snack.
The Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) is the largest vulture in the world with a wingspan up to 3.2 meters (10.5 feet). As you might guess, these birds live around the Andes Mountains in South America while also cruising the coasts as well. The interesting thing about this bird is that the Incas used to believe it was a messenger from the sun god and was responsible for lifting the sun into the sky each day.
The smallest of the vultures is the Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus) with a wingspan of only 1.7 meters (5.5 feet). This is an African bird which can be found in Uganda, Kenya, & Tanzania. This is a weaker vulture, which has a beak suited to tearing flesh from bone but does not have the strong beak to rip open the tough hides common on African animals. Due to this it often relies on other scavengers to start the feast first.
No matter which vulture you find, one of the key features of these birds are their bald heads. Perhaps you prefer a feathery crown, but this lack of is actually an evolutionary adaptation that suits the birds well. Going about cleaning up and out carcasses can be a dirty business, especially when trying to get right in there to pick the bones clean. A bald head allows vultures to stay relatively clean, preventing blood and bacteria from caking feathers that might otherwise be hard to clean.
Also along the same lines, vultures have evolved excellent immune systems. They are able to eat meat that is at the stage of great decay without harm, whereas many other animals would become very sick from doing so. And really, it’s that part that seems to gross a lot of people out, but think about a world without vultures. They are a necessary part of the life cycle. They aid in breaking down organic matter. No vultures could very likely mean more corpses littering the fields and a slower decomposition rate.
Many vultures are endangered. In some places farmers or ranchers that believe they are having a predator problem will poison the carcass of an animal and leave it out. The intent is for the predator to eat the carcass and be poisoned, killing them. While there are other ways to handle predation, it needs to be pointed out that doing something like this can have untargeted victims. Vultures and other birds often come to eat from these poisoned meals and become gravely sick or even die despite not being a threat to livestock. This was a common reason that vultures were in the rehabilitation centers I visited while in South Africa. However, it should also be noted that some ranchers are under the false believe that these large birds are responsible for the deaths of their animals and on occasion vultures themselves are targeted for poisoning. This was a large reason for the decrease in vultures in the western U.S.
In a different yet similar case, many vulture populations around India have had a drastic dive in population due to unintended poisoning. In a country where cattle are sacred, these animals often live as long as their lifespan allows. It was found that the drug diclofenac, which is an anti-inflammatory and pain killing agent often given to cows, is actually toxic to vultures. When the old animals are brought to a field or forest to pass on, they are often given this drug. Vultures that ingest this contaminated meat suffer from kidney failure within just a few days.
Vultures are also often killed by eating carcasses that have been shot by hunters, resulting in lead poisoning, DDT poisoning which I’ve discussed before, electric power lines, habitat destruction, and believe it or not, being poached for museum specimens.
There are various rehabilitation centers and zoos around the world that try to aid vultures. Some of them rehabilitate wounded birds and release them if possible, while others try to breed them for release, and these organizations can always use support. To prevent poisonings, just like most problems, education is key! And it is up to citizens to support reintroduction plans when they are suggested. Many ranchers objected to vulture reintroductions around the U.S. Grand Canyon due to false beliefs that the birds were predators!