These scavenging raptors are the hyenas of the skies, playing a vital ecological clean-up role by disposing of decomposing carcasses. Broad wings allow Vultures to soar effortlessly for hours; acute eyesight enables them to locate their quarry from miles away; and potent stomach acids help them deal with the most putrid carcass.
Of ten species that occur in Africa, the lappet-faced vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) and cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) are the largest, both with wingspans that may reach 2.9m.
- Vultures preserve a strict pecking order at a carcass, both among different species and between individuals of the same species. At a typical savannah gathering, the huge and aggressive lappet-faced vulture dominates, using its powerful bill to open up the carcass for others.
- Vultures use thermals to soar to prodigious heights. A Ruppell’s vulture sucked into a jet engine at 11,300m above Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire, holds (posthumously) the altitude record for birds.
- The naked head of a typical vulture is an adaptation to ensure that no feathers become soiled when it feeds inside a carcass; it also helps in thermoregulation, allowing a vulture to lose or preserve heat by hiding or exposing its head according to conditions.
- A vulture can cram up to 1.kg of carrion into its crop – a distensible sack, located in front of its oesophagus. Vultures cannot depend upon finding food daily, so this supply works as a packed lunch. When disturbed, a vulture will empty its crop for a quick take-off and escape.
- The small Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus) provides one of the best-known examples of tool-use in the animal kingdom. It opens the eggs of large birds, including ostriches, by tossing small stones at the shell, repeating the action until the shell cracks. This action was first observed by famous primatologist Jane Goodall in Ngorongoro crater, in 1963.