I felt compelled to write this in order to in some way redress the undeserved reputation that vultures have.
Associated with death (for better or worse, an accurate association), the image of vultures as ugly, macabre representatives of the afterlife has been around for centuries.
Vilified in some cultures as harbingers of doom, they are revered in others as birds of divination. Sadly their numbers have been declining all over Africa as victims of the traditional medicine trade; vulture parts are believed in some parts of the continent to confer the gift of foresight on those that consume them.
Yet this family of birds plays an indispensable role in the overall health of the wilderness, eliminating potential sources of disease by their consumption of carrion.
I guess any scavengers are never going to be high on people’s cute-and-cuddly list, but unfortunately for vultures, one more thing adds to their lack of appeal for most people, and that is their propensity for sitting in dead trees.
As an animal already associated with death, to then go and sit on something else dead won’t really serve to increase your appeal. Many times I’ve heard people or read in books how vultures are always to be found in dead trees and therefore eerie birds, but the poor vultures can’t help it; they have to sit in dead trees!
White-backed vultures, the most common species at Londolozi, have wingspans of over two metres. Lappetfaced vultures, far less common but the biggest species we get here, stretch almost three metres from wingtip to wingtip!
Now, imagine you are one of these birds flying at a height of 6000ft. You spot a tawny shape far below you next to a patch of red; it could only be a lion on a kill (we’ll go into vultures’ incredible eyesight another time). Dropping down out on of the blue in a race to get there ahead of the competition, you come screaming in with so many of your conspecifics that it looks like rush-hour at Heathrow airport,
Overflying the carcass it is clear that the lions are still feeding, so there won’t be any chance for a meal just yet. What do you do? Wait it out of course, and the safest place to do that is in a tree. Although you have lowered your legs to act like brakes and you’ve stretched your alulae to full extension, preventing a stall, you still have quite a lot of momentum behind you, and need a clear place to perch with those massive wings of yours.
The question, therefore, is why would you try and land in a living tree with all its leaves and branches and twigs that are going to snag you as you try and effect a graceful landing, when you could just choose the dead tree with a choice of only two or three branches, none of which offer any extra impediment?
Dead trees are therefore the obvious choice.
No one thinks a Martial Eagle is disagreeable because it also sits in big dead trees on occasion. And African Fish Eagles, among the most beautiful and iconic of Africa’s raptors, instill nothing but wonderment when perched on similar branches.
So vultures, sadly, just get the stigma already attached to them, added to.
All these discussion are merely for us though. The vultures are going to continue sitting where nature designed them to sit. They will sit on live trees when necessary, but a nice dead knobthorn will almost always be first choice, notwithstanding our opinion of them.