It all began after a successful start to the morning, the temperature started to rise so we decided to stop for some coffee and hot chocolate at a small water hole. What happened next really got the excitement levels up.

A white-backed vulture as it drops out of the sky. Cirlcing vultures don’t necessarily mean that a kill is around but when they all start landing, there is a good chance there is a carcass that they’re after.

We started to notice a massive gathering of vultures circling above us and then beginning to drop out of the sky. Many people who believe that seeing vultures circling in the sky is a sure indication that something is dead or dying. This may not always be the case. Because they are heavy birds they are able to fly best and conserve energy when there are warm thermals to carry them across vast distances, but luckily for us we were soon to find out this was not the case… We all quickly packed up and went straight to the area where we had seen them landing. Upon approaching the site, we realized the vultures were feeding on something. The guests were ecstatic to see so many vultures in one place.

To understand vulture behaviour we must come to terms with the fact that vultures are opportunistic feeders that feed in a very competitive environment on carrion and dead carcasses. These vultures by any stretch of the imagination, cannot be regarded as good looking creatures – but they do play a vital role in the greater scheme of things by removing carcasses from the veld and actually have a feeding hierarchy. What was amazing was that all five species were here in one spot, something we hardly ever see. To some, this may not mean much but vultures have all been categorized as a vulnerable bird species due to the decline in their populations across South Africa in the last few years. The best part was how it helped us gain a better understanding of how they feed and interact, something I had only read about in books before now.

While sitting watching all of this unfold, it reminded me of my childhood days, when I was five years old at a birthday party. The excitement levels were on par with when I was that age; running in through the gates of the party with all my friends and heading straight towards a table full of sweets, a child’s dream. The similarities were scary as we watched all the vultures flocking towards the carcass. I’m sure we can all think back to those childhood parties.

The lappet-faced vulture is the largest and dominates all other vultures. This reminded me of how there’s always that big bully who was a little older at the party. He would wait until the chaos was over and all the kids had what they wanted and then he’d come along and snatch all your favorite sweets, leaving you with the scraps. There was nothing you could do except try to get some more, knowing there was very little chance with him around.

lappet faced vulture

They are seen arriving at a carcass singly or in pairs and will frequently wait until the “action” is over if the carcass has been opened up by mammals before tackling the tough skin, tendons and ligaments too tough for other vultures to feed on.

vulture table

A table comparing the five different species of vultures we saw.

The Cape vulture and white-headed vultures are two species that have similar behaviour and feeding habits. They reminded me of these twin brothers who were at all the birthday parties, who were also slightly above the average size and would push past all the other kids swarming around the birthday cake. They would usually wait until the bully (the lappet-faced) had taken what it wanted, which was the first piece after the birthday kid and then make their way through the squabbling sugar-rushing kids to take the pieces with all the best toppings. From the outside it seemed as if they were working together to get the best piece but when push came to shove they were not scared to battle it out between the two of them, causing even more havoc. One would eventually lose and the other would run off with the goods.

The Cape vulture, a very rare sighting here at Londolozi, as it makes its way through the white-backed vultures to feed on the remains. The Cape vulture focuses on eating muscle tissue, organs and viscera of the prey items.

lappet faced vulture

A vulture that is often confused with the lappet-faced due to its size and colouration. The white-headed vulture takes off from the low branches of a knob thorn to go in search of another carcass, having been one of the first to feed off the steenbok carcass.

The white-backed vultures are the most numerous vultures here at Londolozi. They resembled all the other children at the party who were constantly fighting over the best-flavored sour worms, various sweets and jelly beans. As soon as something new was placed on the table we’d all race to it to gobble it down, hardly chewing in case we missed out.  The sugar rush and excitement was uncontrollable and the parents would watch from a distance as the kids proceeded to jump and bounce around on top of each other, trying their luck. The battle that goes down at a carcass is just as fierce as sugar-rushing kids around a table full of goodness.

white-backed vulture

The most numerous of all the vultures. This was our first glimpse of what was about to unfold, as all the white-backed vulture’s raced towards what was left of a steenbok carcass.

We must not forget the hooded vulture; the smallest of all the vultures, which prefers to hang around the periphery of the chaos. This vulture reminded me of the smaller children who would not get involved in all the pushing and fighting, either because they would get bullied or had manners and would wait for the odd sweet to get inadvertently tossed their way amidst the chaos and pandemonium. They sometimes struck gold and would be the first to the table before they got chased away by the hyper, aggressive children. This is so similar to the hooded vulture who will often wait in the low-hanging branches above and closest to the carcass and then feed on things like the eyes or the scraps like morsels in between the ribs once all other vultures had moved off.

hooded vulture, silhouette, AJ 2017

The smallest of them all, weighing in at a total of 2.1kg, is the hooded vulture. They tend to wait on the periphery for any scraps and allow the chaos to ease before making their way towards the carcass. Notice the slender bill, which is ideally suited to peck out eyes and get in between ribs.

Now that you have a better understanding of how they all fit into the hierarchy and pecking order, the big question is which vulture do you think you would be?

Filed under Birds Travel Wildlife

About the Author

Guy Brunskill


Guy grew up in the city of Durban, Kwa-Zulu Natal. From a very young age he visited the bush each holiday. It was during these early years that his passion and interest was ignited for this incredible environment. After school he acquired a ...

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on If Vultures Were Kids at a Birthday Party, Which Would You Be?

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Interesting and the likeness is amazing. I think I was like the hooded vulture back then.

Marinda Drake

I somehow missed this blog when it was posted Guy. Thanks for the chart comparing the different vultures. We often see vultures and forget which is which. Is it not that that the hooded vulture has got a smaller beak to pick the meat out between the bones? I have read that Cape Vultures were released in the Shawu vlei area close to Mopani rest camp. Vultures are realy vulnerable and do not always get the credit they deserve.

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