The vulture is a very famous bird, it has become a symbol of the scavenger, living by eating rotting corpses. The associations are not the most pleasant, but you can look at it from the other side: unlike predators, vultures do much less damage to other species, while bringing much more benefits.
View origin and description
The oldest birds evolved from archosaurs approximately 155-160 million years ago. Their ancestor has not yet been established, and there are several hypotheses as to how exactly they became flying from land animals. So, a number of scientists believe that at first they jumped down from trees and gradually developed first a gliding flight, and then a real one.
Other researchers adhere to the version that at first they learned to jump higher and higher in order to jump onto trees and shrubs. There are other versions. How exactly birds learned to fly is so important because, starting from this, it will be possible to determine how their evolution proceeded.
Be that as it may, it was rather slow, and pterosaurs reigned in the air for many millions of years. The species of birds that lived on the planet at that time, in the Mesozoic era, have not survived to this day. A significant part of them died out along with the dinosaurs – it was after that extinction that the birds began to evolve much more actively.
Then the first hawks appeared – namely, the vultures belong to this detachment. This happened 48-55 million years ago, but those birds also became extinct – modern genera began to appear a couple of tens of millions of years later, at the same time vultures arose. They were described by C. Linnaeus in 1758 and received the Latin name Neophron percnopterus.
Interesting fact: In Egypt, vultures have been known since antiquity as the “chicken of the pharaohs.” They have been revered in this country since ancient times, and were not even driven out of the pyramids, where they often nest. And today killing a vulture is punishable by law there.
Appearance and Features
The vulture is a rather large bird, an adult reaches 60-70 cm in length, its wingspan exceeds one and a half meters, and its weight reaches 1.6-2.3 kg. The plumage is white, and along the edges of the wings are very noticeable black feathers. Feathers near the throat are yellow.
The vulture is distinguished by its bald head; her skin is bright yellow, even with a hint of orange, and it is very conspicuous. We can say that the unusual appearance of the head is its main sign, by which the bird is very easy to recognize. In addition, a tuft stands out, rising when she is anxious.
Young vultures are yellow-brown in color, slightly spotted. As they mature, their feathers gradually lighten up to white. The iris of the bird’s eyes is brown with a red sheen, the tail is in the form of a wedge.
The beak is yellow-orange at the base, and becomes black towards the end, bent down. It is weak and thin, and this is one of the main reasons why the vulture feeds mainly on carrion, and small ones: it is simply not able to tear through hard skin.
His paws are also weak, and therefore he is not able to carry large prey, as well as to engage in fights – even smaller birds are often armed with a powerful beak or claws, and therefore the vulture will not be happy with them in a fight. That is, nature itself predetermined that they have to wait patiently until the rest are sated.
Where does the vulture live?
This bird lives over vast areas, although the current range has been significantly reduced compared to the former range.
- Africa – a wide belt along the Tropic of Capricorn from Senegal in the west to Somalia in the east ;
- Near East;
- Asia Minor;
- Pyrenees, Morocco and Tunisia;
- Balkan Peninsula.
In addition to these areas, there are small populations of the vulture in other places, mainly in the Mediterranean – for example, in the south of France and Italy. Previously, there were much more of them, and this bird inhabited the entire Mediterranean.
There is even a small population in Russia, in the Krasnodar and Stavropol Territories, as well as North Ossetia and Dagestan. The total number is quite small – about 200-300 individuals. This bird prefers to settle on rocks, rarely lives in forests, but exclusively located near the steppe. There is little food for them in the forest, pastures are another matter. They also often live near settlements.
It is desirable that there is a reservoir near the habitat: vultures can be seen near it often, they visit there not only to drink, but also for food – there are usually a lot of them nearby besides, they like to swim.
Interesting fact: They can migrate long distances, sometimes overcoming thousands of kilometers. Because of this, once there was even a state scandal, when in Saudi Arabia a GPS transmitter installed in Israel was found on one of the birds – she was suspected of espionage.
Now you know where the vulture lives. Let’s see what it eats.
What does the vulture eat?
- human food remains;
- animal waste.
It is widely known that vultures feed on carrion: it is eaten by many other birds of prey, but it is not in vain that vultures are associated with it more than all others, because it occupies a central place in their diet. These can be the corpses of mammals, reptiles, other birds, fish, and so on.
They prefer the corpses of small animals: because of the weak beak, they cannot tear the skin of large ones. Therefore, if this is some kind of ungulate, the vulture can only wait until other animals are sated, and then try to intercept the remnants that do not need to be torn from the body with force; or even wait until the corpse softens due to decomposition.
They often settle near human settlements, because carrion in sufficient quantities can not always be found, but garbage in them and next to them is always in abundance. Vultures can also eat on it: they find leftover food, rotten food and the like, and divide it among themselves. They can also eat fruit straight from the trees.
They are able to eat even feces: of course, in the last place, but not because they are embarrassed by the taste and smell – their perception of both, apparently, is greatly distorted. It’s just that their nutritional and energy value is very low, but even vultures can get calories from excrement.
Although they prefer food that is incapable of resistance, they are also a danger to other animals, primarily birds: they often destroy other people’s nests, eat eggs and chickens. Victims cannot fight off a whole flock of vultures, and usually they can only leave the nest, leaving their offspring to be torn to pieces.
Vultures are able to run fast on the ground, which they use to catch small land animals such as rodents, lizards or snakes. However, they do this quite rarely, because for them there is no difference – what is carrion, what is live prey, but the second still needs to be caught.
Peculiarities of character and lifestyle
The Vulture flies easily and is capable of gaining considerable speed for a scavenger. Compared to a similar diet of birds, it is less prone to soaring and flies more actively. At the same time, he looks out for whether there is any prey anywhere. Other birds are not afraid of him, and even small ones fly freely nearby.
Paired vultures usually stay together for years and live in the same nest. They can also fly to another, but only if the situation forces them, most often due to the fact that there is less food nearby. They drag branches and various debris, bones, ropes into the nests, and weave a rather strange looking structure out of them.
Inside an opening in a rock or cave, next to the nest, the remains of prey are usually lying around – the vultures eat mostly right at the place where they found it, but they can take individual pieces of meat with them to finish eating later. Something remains uneaten, but the vultures do not remove these remains, the smell of decay does not bother them.
At the same time, they zealously monitor the cleanliness and order of plumage, and spend a lot of time daily, carefully cleaning feathers and fitting them properly. Basically, the vulture is silent, it is very rare to hear it, and its voice can surprise you with melodiousness: it is difficult to expect something like this from such a bird.
They are not afraid of people, in Africa they can always be seen in settlements, where they constantly sit on the roofs of houses and flock to the garbage heaps. They can even be called arrogant birds, they are able to literally snatch food from their hands, they are spurred on by rivalry within the flock – the most arrogant males tend to get ahead of each other and be the first to eat.
Social structure and reproduction
Outside of the breeding season, vultures mostly live in small groups of a dozen or two individuals. Some live separately from groups, singly or in pairs, usually they have to wait at the prey until the flock is sated. When the season comes in mid-spring, they form pairs.
Their mating ritual is simple: males and females perform a dance – soar up and fall down in a sharp peak, converge, putting their paws forward, so that it may seem as if they are going to fight. After the end of the ritual, they build a nest or expand the one already built in previous years.
Then the female makes a clutch, most often of two eggs, white with brown spots. Both parents alternately incubate them for six weeks. Newborn chicks are covered with white fluff, and their incubation does not end there: the first week or two, the female is constantly in the nest, because the chicks need to be warmed.
Only when the first fluff changes to a thicker one, she begins to fly out of the nest to help the male in finding food for the chicks. As soon as they are covered with feathers, they get out of the nest and begin to actively flap their wings, but they still cannot fly.
They fledge only at 11-12 weeks after hatching, but remain with their parents even after that, although for the most part they already feed themselves, flying with their parents. In autumn they begin to live on their own, and fly away from cold places for the winter, where they remain until they reach puberty – this happens by the age of five.
Interesting fact: The vulture’s stomach produces stronger acid than other animals, which is why they can eat rotting meat: the acid kills all disease-causing organisms, making it harmless.
Natural enemies of vultures
Among the enemies of vultures:
- birds of prey;
- other scavengers.
There are not so many dangers for adult birds: they are practically not hunted by predators, since it is easy for them to escape from non-flying ones, and they are too large for flying ones. In addition, they have sharp eyesight, so they can notice the enemy from afar and safely fly away from him.
Other scavengers are the most dangerous for them: the vultures have no way to fight them, so even if they flew in earlier, they can be driven away from prey. They have to wait until everyone else is full, except for very small scavengers, and sometimes there is nothing left for them.
More threats to chicks: Vulture nests are devastated by birds of prey, such as owls, and wolves and jackals can eat chicks already emerging from the nest – and even if the parents are nearby, there is nothing they can do to protect them.
Interesting fact: The ingenuity of vultures is evidenced by the way they break ostrich eggs. Their shells are thick and cannot be pierced with their beaks, so the vultures throw stones at them. At the same time, they try to use a small stone so as not to damage the egg much. If it fails to break, choose a slightly heavier stone, then another, and so on until it breaks.
Population and species status
Back in the beginning and even in the middle of the last century, vultures were widespread – it’s not for nothing that they became so famous. There were many of them not only in Africa, but also in a large part of Asia and in southern Europe. However, their population in almost all habitats declined rapidly in the following decades.
As a result, in some places where they lived, they now do not exist at all, in others there are very few left, and at first in some countries they were concerned about the preservation of the species, since it almost disappeared in them, and then there was a threat to the world population. The species now has endangered status (EN), which means that it must be protected in all habitats.
The number of vultures has declined very sharply in the last decades of the last century. Most often, the cause was either a preparation for vaccinating domestic animals: for vultures they turned out to be highly toxic, or other substances also used in agriculture, for example, to treat fields against insects.
The decline in the population of vultures at the end of the 20th century was simply catastrophic, and in some places it continues to this day at no less pace:
- in Europe and the Middle East, they were halved between 1980 and 2001 ;
- In the Canary Islands, from 1987 to 1998, the population fell by 30%;
- In India, from 1999 to 2017, they decreased by 35%. Around Delhi, there used to be 30,000 individuals, now they are almost extinct – only 8-15 birds remain.
In many countries, bans have been introduced on substances poisonous to these birds, but during migrations, vultures often end up in countries where they do not yet operate. Therefore, to prevent their extinction, the efforts of too many states are required, and so far it has not been possible to coordinate them.
Nevertheless, progress has been made in the new century – at least the number of vultures is no longer falling as quickly as before, although it is still decreasing. In addition to banning toxic substances, a number of other measures need to be taken. So, the recommendations of the International Union for Conservation of Nature include the organization of top dressing where they have become especially scarce.
There are many countries where this has been done, and such events can be beneficial not only for the birds, but also for the organizers themselves, since ecotourists come to see it. In some places, vultures are bred in captivity, accustoming them to stay in one place and then releasing them into the wild. This is how sedentary populations are formed, which are much easier to protect.
Vultures are only nesting in Russia, and protection measures still need to be taken. Previously, they met in the Crimea, but now they have practically ceased, however, they still fly to the Caucasus. Most of them are in Dagestan, but even there in recent years it has become much less than before.
While this is mainly due to problems in the wintering grounds, deteriorating conditions in the breeding grounds have also contributed to this decline. To contribute to the conservation of the species, it was included in the Red Books of the regions where its representatives still fly to nest.
In the coming years, it is planned to take a number of measures, including arranging several areas for feeding birds, creating a natural park for their safe nesting, to conduct a survey of all their nests, in order to then develop a more detailed conservation plan.
Let the vulture, unlike eagles or falcons, not be associated with something lofty and proud, but its extinction must be prevented. After all, vultures are very important as killers of carrion: as researchers have established, in those territories where they disappeared, carrion lies much further, which is why animals get sick more often.