Vultures: The Ugly Facts

Words: Tristan Allan-Reynolds 

Images: Chad Cocking 

In the Timbavati we have got a vast array of birds, varying from some of the largest birds of prey in Africa to the tiny little Grey penduline Tit weighing 6.5 grams, making it the smallest bird in not only the Timbavati, but also in Africa. 

One category of bird I feel often gets overlooked is the vulture family. Although some may argue they are not very ‘pretty’ birds, and therefore they don’t necessarily pay much attention to them. When the reality is they are essential to this beautiful natural environment and are actually very interesting birds. When coming to Tanda Tula you could potentially see five different species of vultures. The White backed, Hooded, White faced, Cape and Lappet faced vulture.  

The most common vulture found here is the White backed vulture, as we go about on our game drives on these rather chilly winter mornings, you will often see them in their nests right at the top of leafless thorn trees. In the lowveld, the most popular tree for a white backed vultures to nest in is a Knob thorn tree, they nest in these trees for two reasons. The first being that the tree is cover in small hook thorns to deter any predators from robbing the nest and secondly because white backed vultures breeding season is during the winter and knob thorns lose all their leave in the winter allowing for more sunlight on the nest and therefore warmer and more suitable conditions.  

White backed vultures will also only have one chick a year, so it is very important for the parents to do everything they can to ensure the survival of their offspring. To make sure the egg is always receiving enough heat the female vulture will shed some feathers around her belly so that her skin can be in direct contact with the egg, this will then allow the egg to receive a constant and reliable source of warmth.  

As many may know, a vulture is a scavenger and will feed on carcasses often leftover from the terrestrial predators out here, but not many people know how essential this is. Many animals in the wild are carriers of different diseases and if it weren’t for vultures, these diseases would spread and the result would then be catastrophic. Vultures have got a very corrosive stomach acid, and this allows them to consume and destroy diseases that are found in dead matter, anthrax and rabies being the largest concern in the lowveld. Admittedly, a world without vultures would be a stinky and unhospitable place.  

Vultures like to soar between 600 and 1000 meters in the sky to give themselves a larger field of vision when looking for carcasses, because they fly at such great heights vultures have got unbelievable eyesight. These birds are adapted with thicker retinas than humans and their eyes are larger in proportion to their head. It is thought they can see something as small as a dead scrub hare from over a kilometre away.   

White backed Vultures can weigh as much at 7 kgs, so instead of using all their energy in physically flapping, they instead wait for the sun to warm the air and create thermals. This is when you see these birds extending their 2.3m wingspan and using the rising warm air to achieve the optimal altitude. By doing so they can save up to three times the energy they would need to physically gain that height.  

So, next time you are on safari hopefully you will look at vultures with a little more interest and respect and not just see them as ugly, bald, carrion eating birds!