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Vulture culture – the bald facts

Posted by on January 13, 2014

Hooded Vulture - photo courtsey of Phil Gould Mark Leach, the Society of Biology’s membership marketing manager learns all about vultures.

As is often the way of these things, (particularly when you work for the Society of Biology) a  random office conversation got us talking about vultures.  Always with an eye on my next project, Rebecca Nesbit pointed me towards the internet, with a brief to ‘see what you can find out’.

Now, I recall the vulture song in the Jungle Book, but I appreciate that Disney films should almost never be used as a sound basis for scientific research, so as is my usual practice, I boarded the train at Wikipedia central. Straightaway, I learned that the scavenging vultures that come readily to mind are Old World vultures (found in Europe, Africa and Asia), as opposed to the North and South American New World vultures, which actually include Condors.

Sticking with the sinister old world vultures, I subsequently discovered that the bald head (characteristic of many vultures) has long been thought to serve the rather gruesome purpose of keeping the head clean while they are feasting on dead animals. Nice. However, the University of Glasgow’s website suggests that the vulture’s feather-free head also serves to help regulate their body temperature – allowing them to hunch their bodies and tuck their heads in when it’s cold (and I understand that they can fly to great heights where it’s really cold), and to ‘stick their neck out’ to expose more bare skin when it’s hot.

There’s a whole plethora of vulture facts online, (not least the fact that the whole ‘circling vultures’ thing is a myth – they don’t hang about when there’s food to be had!) but I was surprised to learn that they have so many collective nouns. A group of them in flight is quite bizarrely known as a kettle, while at rest they can be known as a committee, a volt or a venue. Still with me? Bear in mind also that when they are eating they become a (not entirely inappropriate) wake. Enough to give anyone an identity crisis! So a flying kettle of vultures can land and become a committee, before starting their elevenses and becoming a wake!

Even when you’ve sussed out how to describe your family and friends, explains that being an Old World vulture just ain’t easy. As they often feed on carrion (which is frequently found in the road) they are prone to being hit by traffic. Although as those pesky dead animals are cleared away by humans as quickly as possible, starvation is also a real threat. Use of lead shot by hunters means that their food can also cause lead poisoning, and drugs used to treat animals such as cattle can also prove fatal. As if that weren’t enough to contend with, their significant wing span means they can often fall foul of electrocution if they touch two wires at once – and sparks from this can also cause fires

The last point doesn’t do anything to help the general bad press they receive. While vultures prefer fresh meat, they are able to tolerate bacteria that would kill other animals and birds, and far from being parasitic, actually help prevent the spread of disease by consuming old, rotting corpses. Nevertheless, they are illegally hunted, poached for trophies and driven away from food sources.

Fascinating? Definitely. Cute? Not so much!

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