Vultures-Sanitary inspectors of the skies

A vulture in landing mode.

If asked to name the bird they would least like to meet, many would say the vulture.

Few birds have been so vilified as the vulture.

It is the accursed bird whose sinister silhouette wheels over the dead and the dying.

Its appearance is said to herald carnage, desolation, and despair.

But such is the stuff of fiction.

As for the facts: Many have been enthralled by the vulture’s grace in flight and the tender way it cares for its young.

They have also discerned its important ecological role.

To such ones the vulture is both magnificent and indispensable.

Admittedly, vultures have a few things against them, apart from their unsavory feeding habits.

They would certainly not win any beauty contests, and their calls have been variously described as squeals, cackles, grunts, croaks, and hisses.

They do, however, have some endearing qualities.

The vulture is a bird that takes parenthood very seriously.

Every year an “only child” receives the undivided attention of both parents until it can fend for itself.

A young vulture chick perched helplessly for several months on an inaccessible ledge certainly needs the compassionate care of both parents.

In fact, a young Andean condor has to be fed for six months before it can leave the nest, by which time the “chick” is nearly full-grown.

And vultures have the virtue of being eminently useful.

Although many birds benefit mankind in one way or another, vultures perform a unique service.

They are sanitary inspectors of the skies.

Sanitary Inspection

A vulture eating a carcass.

Cleaning up carcasses is not everybody’s idea of a favorite daily chore, but it is an important job.

Proper sanitation requires the prompt removal of dead bodies, which can be dangerous sources of infectious diseases for both humans and wild animals.

Here the vultures come into their own.

Even meat contaminated with anthrax or botulin is gobbled up with impunity, until nothing remains but the bones.

Some vultures even specialize in eating bones.

The lammergeier vulture of Eurasia and Africa drops bones from a height onto a rocky surface.

When the bones split open, the lammergeier eats the marrow and the smaller pieces of bone.

If the vultures’ work was left undone, tropical plains littered with disease-ridden carcasses would be a familiar sight.

But let us follow a team of vultures on a typical workday.

Skyway patrol

A vulture flying high up in the sky.

Soon after sunrise, they take to the skies, each one to cover a certain area.

Throughout the day our squadron of vultures tirelessly patrols the skies in search of dead animals.

When a carcass is finally spotted by one of their number, he goes into a steep dive.

This attracts the attention of the other birds, who also hasten to the spoil.

Within minutes, dozens of birds arrive at the scene.

Before eating, the birds hop around the carcass hesitantly.

Despite their reputation, they are extremely shy creatures.

Finally, one of them starts tearing at the carcass, and this is the signal for the whole group to attack the meal.

There is a lot of squabbling and hissing, pushing and pulling, which looks uncannily like a rugby football scrum.

The hungriest, who protest the most energetically, usually get fed first.

If it is a large carcass, there will be enough food for all.

In a matter of minutes, the meal is over, and leaving only the bones, the flock takes to the sky to continue the search.

A vulture’s life is not an easy one. It may be two or three days before they have another meal.

Eyesight and teamwork

A group of vultures finding a carcass.

Vultures are admirably equipped for aerial surveillance.

Their massive wings are perfectly designed for gliding and soaring, enabling them to fly for hours with barely a wing beat.

They are adept at taking advantage of thermals, or rising hot-air currents, which serve to keep them aloft with minimal effort.

Dean Amadon, prominent American ornithologist, described them as one of “nature’s most eloquent expressions of flight.”

A question that intrigued ornithologists for many years was, How do vultures find carcasses so quickly?

The answer turned out to be a combination of sharp eyesight and teamwork.

It has been calculated that a vulture circling overhead at a height of about 2,500 feet [750 m] can spot an object on the ground that is less than five inches [13 cm] long.

But even with such penetrating vision, a lone vulture would be hard-pressed to find food.

Hence, teamwork is essential.

It has been observed that vultures divide up to patrol different areas.

If one vulture descends toward a carcass, his distinctive swoop is the signal to nearby birds that food is in the offing, and they immediately fly in that direction.

Their change of course is likewise spotted by more distant birds, who also hasten to the scene.

This aerial telegraph system is surprisingly efficient, so much so that it may appear to an observer that all the birds arrive almost simultaneously.

Sadly, such efficiency and undeniable usefulness have not sufficed to guarantee the vultures’ protection and survival.

The Return of the Condor

Picture of a baby condor.

Despite being counted among the largest and most impressive birds of prey, vultures are facing extinction in many parts of the world.

Their traditional food has disappeared from the plains, and not infrequently the carcasses they do find have been poisoned.

Their slow breeding rate also makes it difficult for their decimated populations to recover.

Nevertheless, there are some heartening success stories.

A program for the artificial breeding of California condors seems to be proving successful, and it is hoped that more birds can soon be returned to the wild.

Thanks to the efforts of French conservationists, the griffon vulture has reestablished itself in the Massif Central, France, after an absence of many years.

Thus, the bird that people once loved to hate has become a symbol of man’s efforts to save those species that he has endangered.

Undoubtedly, the majestic flight of the condor over the sierras of North and South America is a sight too precious to squander.

Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia, the vultures still unassumingly perform their thankless task, that of sanitary inspectors of the skies.