VULTURE CULTURE : FACT FILE
Scientific name : Gyps coprotheres Afrikaans : Kransaasvoel Zulu: iNqe Yasekoloni
Xhosa: Idlanga Sotho: Lenong
The Cape vulture is one of the nine different species of vulture found in Southern Africa. What makes this scavenger so important is that it is endemic to this region and is found nowhere else in the world. If our Cape vultures go extinct, there are no replacements! A group of international scientists have classified the Cape Vulture’s conservation status as “Vulnerable”. This means that they face a high risk of extinction if we do not actively protect them.
SOME BODY BASICS >>>>>>>>
Cape vultures are big, bulky, creamy-white birds with long, muscular un-feathered necks. Some people call them ugly! Their bald heads and long necks help them to keep clean while accessing juicy morsels from right inside the carcass body cavity. Males and females look alike and their necks are a grey-blue colour. Juveniles, however, have a pink tint to their necks, their heads are covered with a thick down and they have a fluffy scarf of feathers around their necks. Young birds have brown eyes which change to the yellow colour of adulthood at about five to six years of age when they become ready to breed.
Cape vultures are the only vultures in southern Africa that live together in large colonies. They choose layered rock ledges of Sandstone and Quartzite cliffs as favourite roosts. These ‘vulture apartment blocks’ can be visible from many kilometres due to extensive faecal ‘white-washing’. Cape vultures used to occur all over southern Africa, even on Table Mountain, but now their population is declining and there are only six big breeding colonies (with more than 100 pairs) left. They prefer the more open hilly country of eastern South Africa and cover vast distances foraging for food. In the early morning these massive scavengers rely on currents of air rising off the cliff-faces to give them lift to fly. Later, as the air heats up, they can soar for hours high in the sky, often out of our eyesight, on rising currents of hot air called ‘thermals’.
When on the wing and looking for food, Cape Vultures form part of an extensive aerial communication network watching not only each other, but other scavenging birds and animals on the ground. After all, many eyes make light work! Vultures can locate their meals from kilometres away using not intuition or smell, but excellent eyesight. They in fact see about eight times better than humans do. This is the equivalent of looking though a pair of binoculars. Being able to fly makes vultures far more efficient scavengers than their mammalian counter parts. They locate the carcass quicker and then glide in to the carcass at a faster rate than the ground predators can run.
FIRST COME FIRST SERVE >>>>>>>>>
Competition is always fierce at the carcass and a feeding frenzy often ensues. As nature’s ‘clean-up crew’ vultures have an important ecological role to play. A number of gobbling, squabbling vultures can strip a dead impala in three minutes or a cow in three hours, long before the carcass begins to decay. This helps prevent the spread of disease and parasite build up. Their tongues are rough and scoop-like tongue enabling them to gobble muscle, intestines, organs and even fragments of bone at a rapid rate. They store this hasty meal in their crop (a pouch in their oesophagus which swells to contain the meal) for later digestion. If stressed they will regurgitate their crop contents!
Scientists have noticed that Cape vulture chicks are prone to a condition called metabolic bone disease caused by a deficient calcium intake. It is thought that this is because there are fewer large free-ranging predators (like lions and hyena) to break up carcass bones, so there are fewer bone fragments for adult vultures to take back to their growing chicks. Affected chicks have malformed, paper thin bones and unfortunately many of their first flights become their last. By physically breaking up carcass bones placed at vulture restaurants we can help facilitate this important calcium requirement.
Although vultures get filthy dirty when feeding, they are often clean again by the time they get back to their cliff roost. Vultures are in fact very clean creatures and love to bath. This habit sometimes gets them into trouble in more arid areas as they jump into farm reservoirs for a wash and can’t get out. Farmers can help prevent them drowning simply by angling a large log down into the water, so that if they fall in they can clamber up the log and out again.
GROWING PAINS >>>>>>>
Although they have large extended families, Cape vultures are loyal to a single partner. They build their nest together and line it with dry grass which they carry to the cliff in their beaks and then stomp into shape. The female only lays one egg, which is incubated for nearly two months. Vulture chicks are fed by ‘mouth to mouth regurgitation’ and take four to five months to fledge. Sadly less than 50% of these fluffy bundles naturally survive their first year of life.
SURVIVOR SOUTH AFRICA >>>>>>
As the big African herds of wild animals have diminished, there is less food available for them to scavenge. Man-made threats put even more pressure on their natural chances of survival. As better farm husbandry practices develop there are less livestock mortalities. Conversely, over-grazing causes bush encroachment, which hinders the vultures’ visual ability to find carcasses. Juvenile birds often roam thousands of kilometres from their colony and unfortunately often collide with overhead cables in their wanderings. Vultures often get electrocuted when perching on power-lines and poisoned indirectly by people targeting stock killers. There is a cultural belief that vultures locate their food with a clairvoyant ability. As a result, vultures are persecuted and their body parts used for traditional medicine purposes to transfer this foresight to the user for predicting exam questions or lotto numbers for example.
Another myth is that these big birds are a threat to livestock. Unlike the big eagles, vultures have weak feet with a small hind toe, designed for gripping not killing. They are also extremely wary when approaching a dead animal and often perch to assess the scene before deciding that the coast is clear. They would be even less likely to try and immobilize a live animal.
The Cape vulture is an awesome bird, in the truest sense of the word, worthy of our respect and protection. We, as South African’s hold the key to his survival. A responsibility to be sure!