Vulture culture

2009-08-28 00:00

VULTURES could be referred to as the “ugly ducklings” of the bird world. An apt description for what must be the most misunderstood and maligned of all birds.

The only difference is that in the story the ugly duckling turns into a swan and in real life, an ugly baby vulture grows up into a big vulture.

September 5 is International Vulture Awareness day — a time set aside by conservationists to highlight the plight of vulture species worldwide. Throughout Africa, vulture numbers are declining at an alarming rate and it is feared that some species may even become extinct in our lifetime.

Peacocks are thought of as beautiful, parrots can be taught to speak 100 words, but vultures, well — they eat dead things.

Eagles were given the glamorous task of hunting and catching their own prey with big strong talons. A vulture’s foot, on the other hand, is like that of a big chicken. They are not designed with the gripping power of other raptors, so have to scavenge to get food, and what a good job they do too. A group of gobbling squabbling vultures can clean up the carcass of an impala in 20 minutes.

Their vital role is as nature’s clean-up crew, helping to control environmental contamination and the spread of disease.

This competition for food could make vultures seem aggressive but it is “first come first served” at the carcass and they never know where their next meal is coming from. Even though the large Cape vulture’s wingspan is wider than a human’s arm-span, they only weigh in at around seven to eight kilograms and so are no threat to humans or livestock.

They are in fact very wary birds and carefully deliberate all possible dangers before landing at a potential meal.

Vultures are extremely efficient at finding food and, because birds can fly faster than an animal can run, they often arrive at a carcass first and so are susceptible to being poisoned by any baited meat placed by farmers to try to kill jackal and feral dogs that threaten their small stock. A young Bearded vulture carrying a research satellite-tracking device was recently found dead in the Eastern Cape for this very reason. There are believed to be less than 150 breeding pairs of Bearded vultures in the Maloti–Drakensberg mountains, the only remaining place in the world where these beautiful bone-eaters make their home.

In a separate incident at Umkhuze Game Reserve in Zululand, 10 white-backed vultures were killed on Election Day — half of the birds were found headless and heartless. These birds were victims of muthi killings. The efficiency of a vulture’s ability to locate food has been misunderstood as clairvoyance. So vulture body parts are sadly not used to treat illness, but to give the user foresight.

Research and modern understanding has shown us, however, that a vulture’s vision is about eight times better than a human’s.

So, while it is difficult for us to imagine, there is no magic in how they find their food but merely hard work, networking with each other and other scavengers as well as by using their very sharp eyes.

These two unrelated incidents could only be the tip of the iceberg. What about all the vulture fatalities that are not discovered?

The loss of these scavengers has far reaching ecological, economic, cultural and public health effects.

To find out more about these fascinating birds and to learn about ways in which we can help conserve them, visit the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary on the Lion Park road. The sanctuary is home to five of our South African vulture species.

All these birds have fallen foul to human development or ignorance in one way or another.

See them in action at feeding times (midday on weekends) and hear their stories.

For further information please contact the office at 031 785 2981. For any raptors injured or in trouble, phone the Raptor Rescue hotline at 082 35 90 900 for assistance. • Shannon Hoffman,African Bird of Prey Sanctuary Phone: 082 925 3023 E-mail: onair@africanraptor.co.za

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