Vultures – Misunderstood Birds that Play a Big Role in Our Ecosystems
They are large, part of Africa’s “ugly 5”, associated with greed and death.
Vultures are split into the families Acciptiridae and Cathartidae, Old and New World vultures. The term old world refers to the continents Europe, Asia and Africa while new world includes the entire American continent. Sadly, their numbers are dropping all over the world and it should concern us all.
To explain their role for the ecosystem, it's easiest to refer to them as the clean-up crew. All vultures feed on the carcasses of dead animals. With their help a carcass is digested in about one hour. Without vultures it takes several days for feral dogs and rodents to clean the body. Enough time for diseases to spread.
India had one of the most shocking declines in vulture numbers. From 1992 to 2007 the numbers of Indian, Slender-Billed and White-Rumped Vultures dropped by over 90%. The main cause for that was the use of diclofenac as veterinary drug. Since cows are considered holy in India they die a natural death, leaving their body out in the open. Food for the 9 vulture species found in India. If the animal had been treated with diclofenac only 1% of its meat was enough to cause kidney failure in any vulture feeding on them. It is possible that the lack of vultures in India helped to increase the population of feral dogs. Many of them carry diseases like brucellosis, distemper and rabies. 95% of rabies cases begin with the person being bitten by a feral dog. Thankfully the use of diclofenac has been banned in 2006 and the vultures are slowly recovering.
In Europe vultures are threatened by lack of food, loss of habitat, illegal killing and wind farms. In most areas of Europe carcasses are removed before any vulture can come to eat them and wind farms are spreading across the continent. Their blades moving to fast for vultures and birds in general to dodge them. A new threat for the European vulture population is the introduction of diclofenac currently discussed by the European Union.
Luckily the condor population in America has been increasing. The biggest threat for them was lead poisoning from ammunition in carcasses. Due to conservation efforts their population is now growing again.
In Africa vultures are facing several threats and their numbers have been dropping all over the continent. The biggest cause is poising by ivory poachers. They poison the vulture fearing the birds soaring over their illegal kill will call attention to their illegal activities. One of the largest mass vulture deaths was found this year in Botswana, where over 537 vultures were found dead. Amongst them were three critically endangered species. There have been several incidents in KwaZulu-Natal this year as well. The second biggest threat to them in Africa, is the usage of vultures in traditional medicine. Different body parts are believed to heal ailments and consumption of vulture brains supposedly helps you see the future. Other causes for their decline in Africa are collisions with electronic infrastructures and hunting for their meat. An overall problem with vultures is that they’re long living birds. It takes several years for them to reach maturity and start breeding. So every dead vulture is a big loss for the entire population.
Next to their important role in the ecosystem they’re also fascinating creatures. Most vultures lack feathers on their head and neck, to keep them clean while feeding on carcasses. With their minimum of 135 cm. wingspan they are amazing to watch riding the thermal winds, especially if there is abundance of them.
Both the Andean and Californian Condor are one of the most viewed bird species; they can reach a wingspan over 300 cm. The Ruppell’s vulture holds the record of the highest-flying bird ever recorded as one individual got sucked into a jet engine at 11 277 m. in the air. Bearded Vultures are the only vulture species that don’t feed on meat, but actually on bone marrow. They crack the bones open by dropping them on stones mid-flight. The bearded vultures are able to digest bones, because their stomach acid has a pH of 1.
The Egyptian vulture has actually been recorded using tools. They use pebbles to open eggs to feast on them and they roll up wool on sticks for building their nests.
Hopefully on today’s International Vulture Awareness Day you recognise the importance of vultures to our ecosystem and that we need to protect them!
- Houston D., et.al, Bone Digestion and intestinal Orphology of the Beared Vulture, 1994
- Oganda D., et.al, Ivory poachers and poison: drivers of Africa's declining vulture populations, 2016
- BirdLife International, The last African Vulture – The Consequences for Nature and People, 2017