Saturday, September 05, 2009

Vulture Awareness Day: Vultures I Would Like to See

Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, designated to build support for vulture conservation through a better understanding of their ecological role. To that end, bloggers are asked to contribute blog posts on vultures for a one-day blog carnival. (There is still time to contribute something if you have not done so yet.) Why is such a day necessary? Even though some vulture populations are thriving (such as Turkey Vulture), many are not. Old World Vultures have been hit particularly hard in recent years, with several species close to extinction. Some New World Vultures, too, are extremely vulnerable. As BirdLife puts it:
This comes against a backdrop of recent reports of problems facing vultures in Africa and the ongoing ones in Asia. Across the Indian subcontinent, populations of three formerly very common species of vulture have declined by more than 97% as a result of consuming cattle carcasses contaminated with the veterinary drug diclofenac.

There have been mass vulture deaths in East Africa associated with misuse of chemicals, huge population declines in West Africa due to habitat loss, and the disappearance of vultures from large areas of their formers ranges in South Africa because of the continued use of vulture parts in traditional medicine and sorcery.
Rather than dwell on such unpleasant topics (ably covered elsewhere), I would prefer to devote my blogging contribution to a subject dear to every birder's heart: what vultures I would most like to see in the wild.

Depending on whose list you cite, there are somewhere between 9,000 and 11,000 bird species in the world. Many are quite beautiful, many are rare, and many display interesting behaviors. So why would anyone be interested in seeing more vultures? Despite their disgusting habits, vultures have much to offer the birdwatcher. While ungainly on the ground, vultures are among the most graceful of flyers. Their large wings catch even the faintest of updrafts, so that the birds soar seemingly effortlessly. Turkey Vultures, and perhaps some other vulture species, possess a sense of smell, an ability present in few other birds. Finally, there is simply something charismatic about large animals, whether they are mammals or birds or members of some other class. So here is my list.

1. Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus)

I have long been fascinated with Andean Condors, going back well before I became a birder. These birds, among the largest birds in the world, are most at home in the high peaks of the Andes and breed 2-3 miles above sea level. Like the California Condors of North America, Andean Condors have declined over the past half century, though their situation has never been as dire. Also like California Condors, they have benefited from an active conservation program, involving the release of captive-bred vultures and the provision of fresh carcasses where necessary.

2. King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)

Photo by smoorenburg

While most vultures tend to appear somber or at most muted, King Vultures adorn themselves with a dazzling array of colors. Their bare heads are a mix of bright red, yellow, and orange, and their black flight and tail feathers contrast sharply with their otherwise white bodies. These vultures are found in the lowlands of Central and South America.

3. California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus)

 Photo by Phil Armitage

As the only condor native to North America, the California Condor clearly belongs on this list. Nearly extinct a few decades ago, the condor population has rebounded and now numbers in the hundreds. It is sometimes ranked among the success stories of the Endangered Species Act. The sad part is, even the free-flying population can barely be considered wild, dependent as it is upon a captive breeding program, provision of fresh carcasses, and regular interventions from medical staff when injuries or lead poisoning occur. I hope within my lifetime to see a self-sustaining population of condors in the West.

4. Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus)

Also known as the Bearded Vulture, the Lammergeier dwells in the high mountain ranges of Eurasia and Africa. Rather than compete with its larger relatives for fresh carcasses, the Lammergeier has specialized in breaking the leftover bones to consume the marrow. It drops bones (and sometimes turtles) onto rocks from the air to break them apart more easily. As much as 90% of its diet consists of bone marrow. This species is threatened in Europe but stable elsewhere.

5. Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus)

 Photo by dpape

The Cinereous Vulture, widespread in southern Europe and Asia, may be the largest of the Old World Vultures. Like other Old World Vultures, the Cinereous Vulture has a far more powerful beak than any of the New World Vultures. This allows it to tear open fresh carcasses. At times, the Cinereous Vulture has also been called Eurasian Black Vulture or Monk Vulture. Unfortunately, the species has declined due to accidental poisoning and scarcity of carcasses.