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Vulture Awareness Day

By Ariel Miller

Vultures are not exactly the most traditionally beautiful bird to look at. They are dishevelled looking with bald faces, fuzzy heads and necks, hooded and hooked beaks, flat feet with barely curved talons, and that iconic crooked neck that looks like a swan gone wrong with hunched shoulders. Despite their appearance, these adaptations assist these birds with fulfilling an important job, or niche, that helps prevent the spread of deadly diseases.

These birds of prey are scavengers; instead of hunting and killing their own pretty they eat carrion. Their sharp beaks make picking apart food into smaller morsels much easier, while flat feet help them maneuverer on the ground as they spend a lot of time there. In addition to this their long, and naked, necks and head help them access their food and make for an inhospitable place for bacteria and disease to take refuge. This is especially important because carrion often harbours diseases like rabies, anthrax, tuberculosis, cholera, and botulism. Their naturally strong immune system protects them from these diseases and their unique stomach acids annihilate these pathogens when eaten.

Despite the important waste and disease removal service provided by these birds, 14 of the 23 species of vultures and condors are listed as vulnerable or endangered. They are threatened by poisoning, vehicle collisions and hunting. Many birds are poisoned when they ingest carrion containing lead shot from hunters, however vultures are vulnerable to mass poisoning from farmers. In some countries, they fear vultures may harm or kill healthy livestock, as a result poisoned carcass are left out for these birds to feast on.

There are two groups of vultures; Old World vultures and New World vultures. While the two groups of vultures have similar appearance and behavioural traits, they genetically have very little in common. Their similarities are likely due to convergent evolution. Because both groups fill the same environmental niche they have evolved in similar ways.

New World vultures are found in North and South America. This group contains seven species; five vultures and two condors. They belong to the family Cathartidae and are more closely related to herons and storks than other raptors. These birds have a strong sense of smell that helps them locate their next meal.

There are sixteen Old World vulture species found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They belong to the Accioitridae family and, unlike New World vultures, they do not have a strong sense of smell but have much more acute vision. These vultures are related to eagles, kites, buzzards, and hawks.