Vultures are the rubbish collectors of the bushveld – cleaning up the mess left at carcasses after the larger predators have had their fill. These rather ugly looking scavengers have received a really bad reputation over the years; however, they play an incredibly vital role in our ecosystem. As their numbers plummet, it has becoming more and more evident how important the job of this clean-up is. It is imperative that we do everything we can to protect them.
On the 5th September we celebrated International Vulture Awareness Day and what better way to pay tribute to these fascinating birds than sharing some interesting facts about them.
1. Vultures are not like other raptors in that they are very social. They feed, roost and often fly together.
2. There are a number of collective nouns used for a group of vultures depending on the activity they are involved in. A committee, a volt or a venue refers to a group of vultures, a kettle of vultures when they are in flight and a wake when they are feeding together on a carcass.
3. There are 23 vulture species in the world, every continent except Antarctica and Australia have at least one species.
4. Over half of the 23 species are endangered or threatened due to human impact. Apart from facing a dwindling habitat and human conflict, the biggest threat comes from poisoning through poached carcasses or electrocution from power lines.
5. Vultures have an amazing sense of smell and incredible eyesight which helps them to locate a carcass from miles away. This means they can have massive territories and can cover hundreds of miles in a day.
6. All their power is in their beaks and they have relatively weak legs and fairly blunt talons. This means that they are not strong enough to carry carrion back to their nests so they end up regurgitating food from their crop for their chicks.
7. Vultures practice urohydrosis, a process which sees them urinating on their own legs in order to stay cool when temperatures start to soar. The urine also helps to kill any bacteria or parasites they may have picked up while feeding on rotting carcasses.
8. It is not only their urine that is extremely acidic, but also their stomachs. This explains why they are able to break down the bones they eat (70-90% of their diet is made up of bone matter).
9. Vultures fly at such incredible heights that most other bird species would not be able to survive. A number of cardiovascular adaptions mean they can fly at heights where the oxygen levels are thinnest.
10. In the Timbavati we get 5 kinds of vultures: the Hooded, White-backed, White-headed, Lappet -faced and Cape vulture. Each species fulfils its own role and plays a different part in the cleaning up process of a carcass:
1. The Hooded vulture is the smallest vulture that we encounter in the Timbavati. Often they arrive at a carcass before the other species. Their bills are too weak to open a carcass up so they will readily eat the eyes to begin with. Their bills are small and sharp and allow them to access sinew and flesh from in between small bones, such as metatarsals.
2. White-backed vultures are highly aggressive around carcasses. They will mostly consume soft flesh and organs; they are hardly ever seen eating tough skin. This species is unable, for the most part, to open up carcasses and so will also take eyes and soft mouth tissue (if the Hooded vultures have not already).
3. Cape vultures have a very sharp upper mandible allowing them to slice through almost any part of a carcass. They will often wait around a carcass (if not opened) for a Lappet-faced or mammal to open it up. The Cape vulture will go for muscle tissue, organs and viscera.
4. Lappet-faced vultures in most cases are the only vultures that can open a carcass (if there is no mammal around to do so). They have an immensely strong bill that allows them to feed on tough skin, ligaments and tendons.