International Vulture Awareness Day
Be a Voice for Vultures
The first Saturday in September each year is International Vulture Awareness Day. To celebrate, The American Eagle Foundation will be hosting an educational livestream about the ongoing vulture crisis, why vultures are important to our ecosystems, and how we can help protect these imperiled and crucial birds. This exciting program will feature some of our educational vulture ambassadors along with a few other special guests. Our Wings of America Show at Dollywood will offer additional opportunities to get an up close and personal look at our vultures!
Vultures have an unfairly bad reputation. Associated with death and greed, many believe vultures to be cruel, dirty, and ugly creatures. Pop culture is equally unflattering, often casting them in villainous roles. Common phrases like “circling like vultures” or even “culture vulture” have negative meanings. The truth is that these incredible birds are the unsung heroes of the natural world, but most don’t appreciate the virtuous vulture in all its glory. It’s up to us to change the culture to save the vulture.
FUNDRAISER FOR ENDANGERED VULTURES
The American Eagle Foundation has designed a shirt that calls attention to vulture awareness. All profits from the sale of this shirt will be used to help fund the work currently being done in Africa and Asia. We invite you to Be A Voice For Vultures by purchasing and proudly wearing the shirt! CLICK TO ORDER T-SHIRT & BE A VOICE FOR VULTURES!
Bald is Beautiful
One of the easiest ways to be a voice for vultures is to help counter their negative reputation. First and foremost, vultures are not buzzards! Though “buzzard” is often misused interchangeably with “vulture,” the word refers to the Buteo genus and other hawk-like birds. The red-tailed hawk? That’s a buzzard. The turkey vulture? Not so much.
Even though their role as nature’s expert janitorial staff seems gross, they are quite clean due to specialized adaptations. When they perch with their wings spread wide, they’re not waiting for something to die! This posture, called the “Horaltic Pose,” serves a variety of research-proposed purposes; the heat of the sun helps straighten or dry feathers, bake off bacteria, and provoke pests to the surface where they might be easily preened off.
Their stomach acid is so effective that it is capable of neutralizing diseases like rabies, botulism, anthrax, and many more that might prove fatal to humans. Other less-efficient scavengers—like feral dogs—may contribute to the spread of disease, but vultures are a dead-end for pathogens.
When nature calls, some vultures will urinate straight down on their legs. This behavior is called “urohidrosis,” and it helps keep them cool and rinse bacteria off their feet—think of it as a personal vulture hand sanitizer!
Their featherless heads have caused people to call them ugly, but it helps prevent meat from sticking to their feathers as they go about their clean-up duties. Vultures are quite charismatic in appearance, bald heads and all, and come in a stunning array of colors and appearances. Even the humble turkey vulture’s feathers have striking iridescent blues, purples, and greens in the sunlight!
Some of this visual variety comes from vultures’ genetic diversity. There are two categories of vulture: New World and Old World. New World Vulture refers to those species found in the Americas, and there are seven species within this group. Old World Vultures roam Europe, Asia, and Africa. Though all vultures are scavengers and carrion-eaters, New and Old World Vultures share no relation or common ancestry! They have adapted to become nature’s cleanup crew through a process called “convergent evolution.” This refers to the development of similar traits in unrelated species to fulfill a specific ecological role.
Unfortunately, vultures need our help. Of the 23 species of vulture found worldwide, 16 are threatened, endangered, or close to extinction.
Photo: Gavin Emmons, 2-12-10, Pinnacles National Park
The California condor, a New World species, barely avoided going extinct in the 1980’s. Though poaching, litter, and power line collisions were factors, lead poisoning was the believed leading cause of their decline. Studies suggest that a lead fragment the size of a fingernail clipping is lethal to an adult condor. Condors, like most vultures, tend to feed in groups, and so a single contaminated corpse could wipe out several condors. Coupled with a slow reproductive rate (they only lay one egg every two years!), these factors proved to be a recipe for species disaster. When their numbers dwindled to the low 20’s, the remaining wild population was captured for a breeding program. Despite incredible repopulation efforts, California condors still have not recovered self-sustaining populations. Just as humans caused the decline of the California condor, so too will human intervention save the condor.
The Asian Vulture Crisis
Old World Vultures are imperiled to the degree that their decline is referred to as a crisis, and rightfully so! A world without vultures is a world ravaged by disease and befouled by waste.
In the 1980s, there was a robust population of vulture throughout India and southern Asia with 40 to 80 million individuals estimated. A population that big requires an equally big food source to sustain them: cows! This region was populated by over 400 million cows, and only 4% of that population was utilized as a food source due to cattle’s sacred status in the Hindu religion.
From the 1990s through the early 2000s, the previously thriving vulture population plummeted mysteriously. Some species—such as the white-rumped, Indian, slender-billed, red-headed, and Egyptian vultures—declined by up to 99%. The Peregrine Fund discovered in 2003 that an anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac caused this staggering loss of vultures. This drug was given to relieve the discomfort of aging cows, but it was lethal to vultures, and their communal eating habits ensured that a single cow treated with Diclofenac could wipe out substantive numbers.
In India, the dramatic decline of vultures resulted in the exponential growth of feral dog populations, which also caused a spike in the spread of rabies to humans. Researchers estimate that 47,000 people died of rabies and calculated economic costs to India at $34 billion dollars. South Asian governments have since banned the use of Diclofenac, but Asian vulture populations have not yet recovered.
This tragic situation underscores how vultures are not only crucial to their environment—they also help protect human and economic health!
- Indian Vulture, critically endangered
- Slender-billed Vulture,critically endangered
- White-rumped Vulture, critically endangered
- Red-headed Vulture, critically endangered
- Egyptian Vulture, endangered
- Cinereous Vulture(also known as Eurasian Black Vulture), near threatened
- Himalayan Griffon Vulture, near threatened
- Bearded Vulture, near threatened
- Eurasian Griffon Vulture, least concern
Kayla Jackson Talks About Parahawking
Kayla is Director of Avian Training at AEF and shares her experience with the Parahawking Project:
It was the summer of 2014 when I applied for a position titled “The Parahawking Assistant.” I traveled to Pokhara, Nepal that fall, to the base of the Himalayan mountains and the home of the Parahawking Project. The Parahawking Project was founded by UK falconer Scott Mason, who originally had the idea to marry his passion for falconry with his newfound interest in paragliding. The goal of the project was to raise awareness for Asian vultures by giving people an opportunity to interact with these misunderstood birds on their turf, the open sky. Passengers got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to feed vultures “on the wing” as they flew beside non-releasable Egyptian vultures Kevin and Bob, the stars of the project. As the Parahawking assistant, my daily duties involved the care of the five non-releasable raptors that called the Parahawking Project home. I assisted with each Parahawking flight, with my eyes on the bird and a radio in hand in constant communication with our two pilots. After each flight I discussed the plight of the Asian vultures with our passengers, many of whom had no idea that vultures were in desperate need of help. The Parahawking Project changed my life in the best way possible. I fell in love with vultures that fall and it is because of Scott and his non-releasable vultures Kevin and Bob that I pursued a career working with birds of prey. The Parahawking Project has since relocated and is now based in Algodonales, Spain.
The following slideshow contains photos taken by Kayla between September 2014 and April 2015.
Non-releasable Egyptian vulture, Bob, one of the stars of the Parahawking Project.
A large cinereous vulture lands among griffon, white-rumped, and red-headed vultures at the vulture restaurant in Ghachok, Nepal. Cinereous vultures can have wingspans between eight and ten feet.
A Himalayan griffon vulture shows off its impressive wingspan among other griffon vultures and a cinereous vulture with a clear view of the bones of a cow carcass.
Himalayan griffon vultures and white-rumped vultures at a cow carcass at the Ghachok vulture restaurant.
The bones of a cow carcass after a vulture feeding.
Vultures line the banks of a river at the base of snow covered peaks just outside the walls of the Ghachok vulture restaurant.
The African Vulture Crisis
Vultures in Africa are imperiled by a perfect storm of factors, resulting in a decline of their population by 80% or more. Loss of habitat, reduced food and water availability, illegal trade of body parts, and powerline collisions are factors behind the crisis, but poisoning and belief-based practices make up 90% of African vulture mortalities. There is a common denominator connecting all these factors: humans!
Poisoning can occur when farmers try to protect their livestock from hyenas or lions by lacing a carcass with poison, but, more often than not, vultures are the victims. Unfortunately, poisoning cases are often intentional. Vultures act as sentinels to Park Rangers seeking to stop poachers. Because circling vultures can lead enforcement officers straight to the culprits, poachers will intentionally poison rhino or elephant carcasses to take out the scavengers. Because large carcasses attract equally large wakes of vultures, such offenses can wipe out 500-700 vultures at a time.
Poisoning to harvest vulture parts for belief-based uses currently accounts for the largest known mortality event in Guinea-Bissau, in which at least 1,600 hooded vultures were poisoned between December 2019 through March 2020. These mortality rates are a debilitating blow to endangered populations that cannot sustain such losses, and the fact that they are intentional underscores the importance of legislation in protecting these imperiled vultures along with the training of anti-poisoning response groups.
- Hooded Vulture, critically endangered
- Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture,critically endangered
- White-backed Vulture, critically endangered
- White-headed Vulture, critically endangered
- Cape Griffon Vulture, endangered
- Egyptian Vulture, endangered
- Lappet-faced Vulture, endangered
- Bearded Vulture, near threatened
- Eurasian Griffon Vulture, least concern
Keep Calm and Carrion
Left unchecked, it is entirely possible that the ongoing vulture crises will result in the extinction of crucial vulture species within our lifetimes. We can be a voice for vultures by supporting the following initiatives:
Asian Vulture Crisis Initiatives
- Supporting the banning of Diclofenac via petitions and legislations; advocating for the use of vulture-safe meloxicam as a substitute.
- The establishment of vulture safe feeding zones, otherwise known as “vulture restaurants.” Here, safe, ethically sourced carcasses are laid out as a poison-free and consistent food source. American Eagle Foundation annually supports the Gachowk community vulture restaurants.
- Supporting the Vulture Conservation Action Plan, as maintained by the Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre, the Department of National Park and Wildlife Conservation (DNPWC), the National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC), and Bird Conservation Nepal (BCN).
African Vulture Crisis Initiatives
- Supporting the Vulture Multi-species Action Plan (Vulture MsAP) and those organizations that fund it. Link:
- Supplementing initiatives to train poisoning-response group and equip them with the necessary Wildlife Poisoning Response Kits. American Eagle Foundation is also fundraising for this initiative. Link: Tiltify.
- Donating to on-the-frontline organizations such as VulPro.
New World Vulture Protections
- Educate yourself about vultures! Learn to identify native species in your area and how they help support your local ecosystem.
- When safe, move roadkill off the side of the road. Keep a small roadkill kit (gloves, collapsible shovel, etc.) in your car.
- Report any wildlife electrocutions on power lines to your local authorities. Up to 14 million birds are electrocuted each year!
- Support the preservation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which provides native vultures with legal protection from persecution. Of course, those fearful of vultures may not realize that harming them is illegal by federal law, so…
- Advocate for Vultures! Educate your family, friends, and neighbors about vulture’s virtues. Ensure that people around you know that they pose no threat to children or pets, and they don’t spread disease!
Together, we can save our scavengers! Use our hashtags #voiceforvultures or #endangeredwings to share how you’re being a voice for vultures!