They’re often disregarded as ugly, scavengers, but truly, vultures are beautiful and highly intelligent birds. Yes, the humble, grizzly, balding, beautiful vulture is certainly deserving of our love. I’ve teamed up with wildlife photographer and blogger Margaret Weiss, from Margaret Weiss Photography to collate our personal top 10 reasons to love this ‘unlovable’ rogue of the bird world; the vulture.
In sharing the things that make this species so unique and special, we hope to shed a light on why the vulture deserves to be saved and protected. Do you agree with our reasons, or want to add some of your own? Please leave us a comment at the end of this post!
1. There’s such a variety of species that come under the title of ‘vulture’ — 23 species to be precise
Most commonly recognisable by their hunched bodies, large wings, and featherless necks and heads, you could be forgiven for thinking that all vultures look as though they’ve flown out from Disney’s Snow White animation. However, there’s a bit more to this class of birds – in fact, it’s a tale of two Worlds.
There are 23 different vulture species altogether, categorised by whether they are a New World vulture species (found across the Americas and Caribbean) or an Old World vulture species (which are found typically in Africa, Asia, and also Europe).
Rather surprisingly, Old World and New World vultures are not closely related. Although both types are primarily scavengers, and have similar biological traits – including a featherless head, exceptional eyesight, and ability to fly at high altitudes, they are not genetically related. Instead, New World Vultures are related to storks and Old World vultures are related to eagle’s, buzzards, and hawks.
Old World Vultures
There are 16 known species of Old World vultures worldwide. They are Bearded vulture, Cape vulture, Cinereous vulture (also called a monk, black or Eurasian black vulture), Egyptian vulture, Griffon vulture, Himalayan vulture, Hooded vulture, Indian vulture, Lappet-faced vulture, Palm-nut vulture (also referred to as the Vulturine Fish-eagle), Red-headed vulture (also called Pondicherry vulture or the Indian black vulture), Ruppell’s vulture, Slender-billed vulture, White-backed vulture, White-headed vulture and the White-rumped vulture.
Common attributes among these 16 species (which differ from New World vultures), are that they:
- Make grunting, screeching, croaking, and chattering sounds, as they have a voice box
- Have strong feet and talons for gripping
- Are unable to run but move by hopping and wing flapping when needed.
New World Vultures
There are seven species of New World Vultures; these are: the Turkey Vulture, Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, King Vulture, American Black Vulture, Andean Condor and California Condor.
The things that distinguish this collective of vultures from their Old World counterparts are:
- They are virtually silent; they don’t have a voice box and can only grunt and hiss
- They have smaller and weaker feet and poor grasping ability
- They tend to be larger birds, with long broad wings, stiff tails for soaring high in the sky.
2. They are incredibly widespread, found on all but two continents
Besides Australia and Antarctica, at least one species of vulture can be found on any continent around the world. However, their primary home ranges are across savannahs, mountain ranges and cultivated areas in Africa, Asia and Europe, depending on species.
New World vultures live in deserts, savannahs, forests, mountains and cities in southern Canada, North America and South America.
Given their range; vultures are culturally significant across the world. We can see this spanning the sacred Egyptian vultures (which have been immortalised in the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic alphabet as the letter A), to the Californian condors, which are essential to Native American culture in burial rites and mythology.
3. A collective of vultures sounds so exotic (and bizarre)…
A group of vultures can be called a wake, committee, kettle, volt, or venue; depending on what they are doing.
A ‘Wake’ is a group of vultures that are feeding.
A ‘Kettle’ refers to a group of vultures in flight.
A ‘Committee’, ‘Volt’, or ‘Venue’ is the correct terminology to refer to a group of vultures resting in the trees (though a ‘Committee’ can also be used to describe vultures resting on the ground too).
Now, if you have a group of around 100 vultures, that’s a ‘Flock’.
4. Vultures have super-strength stomach acid, which is basically a super power!
I’m sure that everybody knows that vultures feast on dead meat, but did you know that they have an incredibly robust immune system in order to do this, with stomach acid that’s 100 times as concentrated as human gastric juice?! It’s so strong it can even dissolve metal!
This powerful stomach acid is needed to break down rotting flesh and diseases (bacteria, rabies, parasites, botulism, anthrax, virus’), giving vultures the ability to digest food at any level of decay and not contract any illnesses. Something that’s particularly important given that they will regurgitate food from their meal to feed their chicks (a result of their weak feet and legs inhibiting their ability to carry prey back to their nests).
The vulture’s super stomach acids not only allow the birds to fight and destroy lethal bacteria, but also help them to break down the bones of the carcasses that they devour. Being very efficient feeders, they can devour the whole carcass in a very short space of time, including bones – leaving no trace behind.
The Bearded Vulture (an Old World species), which is found living high in the mountains in Africa, Europe, and the Indian subcontinent, is the only known species of vulture with a diet of 70-90% bones.
While it is certainly true that all species of vulture have a primary diet of carrion (the flesh of dead animals), most species will also hunt for small live animals, such as rats, birds, insects, and lizards if no carrion is available. The Turkey Vulture (New World) — which is also the most abundant species — is the only species of vulture that can’t kill their prey.
Another notable dietary variation, is that of the Palm-nut Vulture (Old World species), whose diet consists of oil palm fruit, molluscs, crabs, locusts, and fish.
5. They’re among world’s highest flying birds
The Ruppell’s griffon vulture (an Old World species) holds the title of the world’s highest-flying bird, capable of flying at over 11,000 metres (37,000 feet) – but that’s not the only species of vulture to reach great heights.
Although the idea of vultures circling dying animals is in fact a complete myth, they can indeed be seen ‘floating’ in circles, which they achieve by riding the thermals (a column of rising air, that causes a buoyant current in the atmosphere by transferring heat energy vertically).
The thermals help these birds to reach incredible heights, most of which would be deadly to other species of birds.
Vultures are able to survive at such heights where oxygen levels are at their thinnest, because they possess a series of cardio-vascular adaptations – this is how the Ruppell’s griffon vulture sustains it’s elevation of almost 11.5 kilometres!
While vultures spend a lot of time soaring the thermals looking for food, they do not possess a sixth sense to detect dying animals. Instead, their strong sense of smell and exceptional eyesight is how they find their next meal. Their eyesight is so good, they can spot carcasses 6 km away. They also can hear other birds and animals feeding on dead carcasses.
6. Vultures have huge wing spans
Another amazing adaptation that vultures have to help them to soar for long periods in the thermals is their wide wingspan.
The Andean condor, found in South America, has the largest wingspan of any vulture at almost 3.5 metres wide. That’s huge!
They are the largest of all the vulture species, weighing up to 15 kilograms, and so they rely on their huge wingspan teamed with the thermal air currents to keep their heavy bodies in flight.
7. Bald is beautiful (and practical)
Sadly, vultures are one of the most disliked birds due to their ugliness. Sure, they may not being the most traditionally beautiful species, but at this point their big hunched bodies, huge wings and bald heads are iconic.
They’re also very practical. Their bare head is an adaptation for hygiene; and it’s imperative to stay clean when picking off a carcass. Vultures often poke their heads inside a dead body, which could easily get contaminated with dead rotting flesh, if they were feathered or furry.
The lack of feathers on their heads means that any stray or remaining bits of carrion will not stick to their heads, preventing that dangerous bacteria growth.
8. They’re experts at avoiding and stopping bacteria
I suppose foraging for tasty morsels inside of dead carcasses is likely to earn you a reputation for being unclean and unhygienic, but where vultures are concerned, that myth couldn’t be further from the truth.
These birds are well adapted to stop bacteria. As mentioned above, their bare heads and necks prevent rotting flesh from sticking to them, but they also allow for any remains of rotting flesh on their head and neck to be baked off in the sun — or picked off by other vultures.
Further to this, vultures have a pretty nifty way of disinfecting their legs after walking on carcasses; they urinate on themselves.
The urine also helps to kill off any bacteria or parasites, and it is also used to cool off on hot days – as vultures lack sweat glands. The process is called urohydrosis.
Still, if that isn’t enough to make you look at these birds differently, let me tell you how they fend off any predators: they projectile vomit at their attacker and then flee.
Perhaps that part doesn’t help me win their case on the hygiene front…
9. Vultures stop the spread of disease for other species: they’re nature’s ‘clean-up crew’
Sadly, most people do not realise how vital vultures are for our environment and the ecosystem.
When one thinks of vultures, several connotations spring to mind: words like scavengers, ugly, gross, vulgar, dirty and disease, but they are under-appreciated birds of prey.
We all have seen how these birds circle the sky before descending onto carcasses, often devouring them with their heads covered in blood and guts. For this reason, vultures have earned themselves some unflattering names, such as nature’s undertakers. But they are perhaps more aligned with ‘nature’s clean-up crew’.
Vultures perform a vital function as nature’s garbage collectors, and as such, they play a vital role in keeping ecosystems clean.
Without vultures, the world would be very smelly and full of disease and rotting carcasses.
A vulture can consume more than 1kg of meat in 1 minute, and their ability to consume meat at any stage of decay – as well as bones and other ‘tough bits’ – thanks to that super-strong stomach they have, is of significant benefit for humans.
Vultures remove rotting carcasses which might otherwise infect other wildlife, livestock and humans, helping to keep the ecosystems clean and reducing the potential spread of disease.
Vultures are the ultimate keepers of balance in our ecosystems.
10. They need protecting from poaching and poisoning
What better reason to love vultures than that they simply need us to? Vulture numbers are rapidly declining due to hunting, poisoning, pesticides and collisions with wind turbines and high voltage power lines. Their penchant for feeding on roadkill also means they are significant targets for car collisions.
Humans have severely misunderstood and persecuted these magnificent birds for many years. As a result, vultures are one of the most vulnerable bird species. Their current rating is critically endangered.
With few natural predators, the vultures’ biggest threat, unsurprisingly, comes from the hand of humans; namely, poisoning. Intentional and accidental poisoning accounts for more than 60% of vulture deaths globally.
In parts of South Asia, some vulture populations have decreased by 99% due to the use of Diclofenac. Veterinarians commonly use Diclofenac; an anti-inflammatory and pain relief drug, for animals such as livestock, but the drug has had lethal effects on vultures. Vultures feed on livestock carcasses and ingest the drug leading to kidney failure.
For this reason, countries like India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh have banned the use of Diclofenac. But sadly, many countries in Europe have not prohibited using this drug in livestock, resulting in many more vultures losing their lives.
In some parts of the world, farmers view vultures as livestock predators, and shoot and poison them with strychnine. They are also poisoned by poachers, to prevent them from circling above poaching locations.
In addition, vultures are often the accidental victims of other intentionally poisoned animals. Issues of Human-Vulture conflict have been well documented, where vultures die from feeding on elephants poisoned by poachers for their tusks, or lions that have been deliberately killed in retaliation killings by local communities, whose family members have been attacked by a lion. Dozens of vulture’s may feast on a single carcass of a poisoned lion or elephant.
The bushmeat trade in Africa is partially responsible for declining the vulture population, too. In Bush medicine, traditional healers grind vulture brains, as they believe that they possess healing properties, and they’re also poached for their beaks to be used in traditional medicines.
How can we help save vultures?
In all the weird and fascinating things that make vultures unique, one of the things that strikes me as actually quite adorable, is that many species of vulture mate for life, and if allowed to live; life can mean an average of 18+ years. Some larger species can even live up to 50 years. Potentially, that’s a really long romance!
Globally, vultures are declining, or on the brink of extinction, with conservation proving a significant challenge due to the threats being extensive. Additionally, conservation measures require universal action – such as the global control of pesticides and livestock drugs – to preserve and protect vultures from endangerment and extinction.
Educating local communities about the problems of poisoning is an important step in saving the local vulture populations, as well as understanding all the things that make them amazing. It’s time we recognised these birds as the important ecosystem balancers that they are. It’s time we valued vultures.