“When vultures, watching your civilization, begin dropping dead, it is time to pause and wonder” – David Brower, environmentalist and founder of Friends of the Earth.
Vultures get a bad rap from many people, yet these much-maligned birds have evolved to fill a crucial role in the ecosystem.
Hoping to witness and photograph these large rapacious birds in action, my wildlife photographer husband and I set out early one Saturday morning to a vulture restaurant nearby the Kruger Park.
A carcass was put out for the birds and we waited in the hide, watching the skies in anticipation, cameras ready for action. After an hour the few first white-backed vultures (Gyps Africana) arrived and landed in a nearby tree. A tawny eagle waited patiently alongside them.
Another hour passed with very little action but then the Lappet-faced vulture (Aegypius tracheliotis) arrived. The feeding frenzy could begin. Most vulture’s bills are not capable of tearing the skin of a closed carcass. Thus, they wait the arrival of this “king of vultures” with its mighty bill, perfectly suited for tearing the skin.
Once the carcass was opened it took only minutes for the message to get out and the masses to arrive. We estimated over 80 birds, mostly white-backed vultures but also present were three lappet-faced vultures and a few hooded vultures (Necrosyrtes monochus).
There’s an interspecies hierarchy that exists between the various species of vultures. Top of the pile is the powerful Lappet-faced vulture. Apart from opening the carcass they’re the only species able to eat the tough remains such as skin, tendon, hair and ligament.
The frenetic white backed vultures tackle the softer flesh and organs using their specialized grooved tongues with sharp serrations. With this much competition they need to get their share and move out as quickly as possible. It’s a dangerous business as they risk getting trapped inside a carcass and being eaten. To aid them they’re able to fill their crop up to 1 kg in 2-5 minutes.
The hooded vultures meal of choice is the softer organs like the eyes and intestines. Being low down in the pecking order it will hang around the edge of the feast, snapping up at any scraps that make it their way. Once all the others have had their fill they use their specially adapted small bills to probe into the remaining crevices to clean up the last bits.
With each species adapted to feed on a different part of the carcass there is little open hostility at a food-source. But this particular party received some unwelcome guests: four black backed jackals. The vultures put up a good fight; flying and diving valiantly at the gatecrashers trying to chase them off. The jackals managed to create a sufficient clearing to get in and have a quick bite before leaving, taking a snack with them.
It had been an enthralling morning and they had provided us with great photographic opportunities.
What’s in a name?
The name vulture comes from the latin word vulturius meaning ‘ a large rapacious bird’
PHOTOS BY TREVOR KLEYN
Visit his facebook page: FOCUS WITH TREVOR