Vultures – nature’s clean-up specialists!

One of the most reviled animals of the African bush, the vulture is nonetheless one of the most critically important cogs in an eco-system’s engine because, doing the dirty work of cleaning up carcasses. They’re not pretty and the job they do is mostly stomach-churningly disgusting, but they keep the bush free of disease and environments healthy by scavenging on dead things.

Here at Abelana Game Reserve we have five species of vulture that can be seen – the lappet-faced vulture; white-backed vulture, white-headed vulture; Cape vulture and hooded vulture. All share the same trait of having an extremely corrosive stomach acid that allows them to devour even the most rotten corpses that can be infected with contagious diseases like anthrax, rabies and botulism without coming to harm.

African vultures depend on sight to detect their food, taking to the air on their massive, 3m wingspans to catch thermals and glide to giddy heights from where they use their legendary long-distance vision to spot dead and dying animals.

Recent research has suggested that vultures may not be able to see much in their field of vision and that rather than having a 360-degree field of view, they only have around a 60-degree visual field that cuts out anything above the horizon, including the sun’s glare, and allows them to focus with intensity on the ground beneath them.

Once it has spotted a likely meal, the vulture will begin to circle it before descending, making sure it’s not going to be a wasted journey. Taking off and flapping those huge wings uses a lot of energy and vultures have created an art-form out of not wasting energy, using their massive wings to catch thermals and glide across the skies. Descending attracts attention from other vultures who quickly follow suit, so a dead or dying animal will soon find itself the centre of attention for large numbers of competing birds.

When landing on or near a carcass, vultures do not follow any form of feeding etiquette – it is literally every bird for itself. In most cases the carcass is the result of predation by other animals, so has already been opened enabling the vultures to feast with ease, leaving bones and tough hide for the likes of hyena to deal with. However, some animals die of thirst, malnutrition or illness which leaves no “hole” in the carcass for the vultures to gain access… In this scenario, the lappet-faced vulture is the bird of the hour!

Distinguishable by its bald red head and neck, the lappet-faced vulture is known as nature’s “can opener” because of its strong, hooked beak that can rip through the toughest hide to gain access to the meat and organs beneath. Before it arrives at an intact carcass, its cousins will target the body’s “soft” points of entry – the eyes, ears, mouth, nostrils and anus! It’s not a pretty sight and certainly not for the faint hearted but it is nature in all her gory glory and watching vultures open up and consume a carcass is a lesson in environmental clean-up and waste disposal you’ll never forget!

Once a lappet-faced vulture has opened a carcass, things descend into a free-for-all as birds compete for the tastiest and juiciest morsels. If left undisturbed by hyena, jackal and other carnivores and predators, a group of vultures will strip a carcass clean in mere minutes.

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