They can be helpful to hunters, trackers, rangers,
guides and other field staff by indicating the presence of dead
animals. But vultures have much more to offer if we know something
Many people who have not been afforded enough
practical exposure to the bush but have watched movies and the
square box believe that seeing vultures circling in the sky is a
sure indication that something is dead or dying. This is not always
the case. We can glean a lot of information from vultures but to do
so we must learn something about these huge birds and their
Vultures are scavengers that feed on carrion. They
eat dead people and dead animals. Because they are large heavy birds
they fly best when there are warm thermals to carry them aloft. Once
at cruising altitude they can hang suspended on warm air currents
with a minimum of effort and cover vast distances in a day in search
Because air is cool or even cold in the early
morning or on overcast days vultures will be grounded or "treed" to
use a better term and can be found in the uppermost dry branches of
large trees patiently waiting for the sun to warm the air which will
carry them aloft later on in the day. They can fly if they have to
but they are reluctant to do so because of the effort required.
Later in the day when thermals start rising they take effortlessly
to the sky with a handful of powerful wing beats.
To understand vulture behaviour we must come to
terms with the fact that vultures are opportunistic feeders that
feed in a very competitive environment. Observe vultures on a kill.
The competition is fierce with pecks and wing slaps being freely
dealt out to both species of the same kind as well as other
competitors. The bottom line is this. When vultures spot a carcass
from a height (they have exceptionally good eyesight) they waste no
time getting down onto the ground or surrounding vegetation if there
are still large predators feeding. If you see vultures circling on
thermals the only thing it tells you is that they are looking for
food not that they have found something.
If they do spot a potential meal they waste no time
side slipping and dropping as quickly from the sky as they can with
legs extended and braced for a hard landing.
See Figure 4. If, as a vulture you snooze by hanging
around in the sky too long when there is a meal to be had, you lose.
The next bit of useful information is to be aware of
the fact that there is a feeding hierarchy at a carcass.
Some of the vulture species that compete at a
carcass. Not shown is the Cape griffon which is very similar to the
white backed vulture and sometimes difficult to tell apart. A white
backed vulture (1), lappet faced vulture (2), white faced vulture
(3) and hooded vulture (4) are shown.
As far as birds go there are about eight or nine
species that compete for a potential meal. Of the vultures the Cape
griffon (earlier known as the Cape vulture), the white backed
vulture, lappet faced vulture, white faced vulture and hooded
vulture are the main contenders. Giving them some competition are
Marabou storks, tawny and bataleur eagles. Tawny and Bateleur eagles
are often the first on the scene and will feed on the eyes and
tongue of the dead animal.
The small hooded vultures will also try and get in a
quick bite on soft parts before the large vultures such as the
lappet face, white backed, white faced (quite rare in South Africa)
and Cape griffon arrive on the scene to dominate the carcass. The
eagles and hooded vultures have small beaks which cannot open a
carcass and they are intimidated by the heavyweights when they
arrive and fly off or hang around on the periphery to forage for
scraps when the feeding frenzy commences. The large red faced lappet
vultures with their powerful beaks are top of the pile perhaps on
a par with the long legged Marabou storks.
The lappet faced vulture is aggressive and opens a
carcass with its large beak. This vulture and the long legged
Marabou stork are dominant around a carcass followed closely by
white backed vultures and Cape griffon. A timid hooded vulture can
be seen hanging around on the periphery behind the stork.
They are followed a close second by white backed
vultures who are also usually the largest in number on a carcass and
the less common Cape griffon. White faced vultures are third in line
with hooded vultures, eagles and smaller raptors such as kites on
the lower orders of rank.
The lappet faced and white backed vultures assisted
by Cape griffon all possess powerful beaks with which they open up
the carcass of even thick skinned species such as buffalo.
This is when the fun begins as all the main
contenders battle for the internal organs such as heart, liver,
lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and intestines. Once this has been
devoured they will turn their attention to the fleshy muscles of the
shoulders, rump and thighs. Occasionally some scraps or shreds of
flesh may fly beyond the core feeding area and the hooded vultures
will quickly dart in to eat the morsel before once again moving out
of range of the larger species.
If, as a ranger, hunter or guide you see vultures
peeling quickly out of the sky you can be pretty sure that there is
a dead animal in the vicinity.
If you approach the area where the kill is located
and see a lot of vultures sitting in trees the chances are pretty
good that there are large predators still feeding on the carcass. Be
forewarned. Lion, leopard, and hyaena are intolerant of vultures and
will chase them off until they themselves have had their fill to
eat. Vultures and Marabou storks will then patiently wait perched on
surrounding vegetation until the predators move off and will quickly
descend when their turn arrives to feed.
The perching locations of hooded
vultures will give a good indication of where the
carcass is lying. Small hooded vultures (orange arrows)
perch low on vegetation whilst larger vultures (blue
arrows) perch higher up and further away
Because the smaller hooded vultures have to nip in
first to get at the tongue and eyes they will usually sit in lower
branches close to the carcass. This can give an observer a good
indication (especially in thick bush) as to where the carcass is
lying. The larger vultures perch up higher and often quite a
distance from the carcass. There is generally quite a lot of noise
when vultures are feeding on a dead animal and the clucking,
screeching, hissing and squawking of competing vultures can be heard
a long way off under certain conditions.
Cheney is a
wilderness trail leader, rated field guide instructor
and the author of many leading articles on the subjects
of tracking, guiding, bowhunting and survival. Cleve has unrivalled experience in wildlife management, game capture and hunting, both with bow and rifle.
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vultures suddenly flush up from the ground or move away from the
carcass it is generally an indication that a large predator has
arrived on the scene and is chasing the vultures off the kill.
Vultures will feed on a carcass until just before
sundown and will then roost in trees for the night.
Reading vulture behaviour can therefore be useful to hunters,
guides and rangers.