CONTENT WARNING: This article will feature images of dead animals being eaten by vultures. May be quite gory, not for the squeamish.
I think I’ve got a decent understanding of why these guys have an historically bad reputation. We’ve already touched upon it with the bats and the aye-aye. It’s that unknown, it’s that darkness and it is thanatophobia, a fear of death.
Vultures are unashamed to associate themselves with death and decay. A ‘vulture’ is not an actual biological classification. Vultures come from two main families in the class Aves – the birds – and have a multitude of species. ‘Vulture’ then is just an arbitrary label given to a bird of prey that fulfils most of its dietary needs with carrion – Dead shit.
Humans don’t normally like dead shit. Partly this is a sensible reaction, decay is often a very good source of harmful fungi, bacteria and other parasites and diseases. Nobody ever died of nothing! If it’s dead, it’s dead for a reason and corpses are well to be left alone.
The other reason is psychological. Humans are conscious, the only animal confirmed as such in science at this time (though I suspect a few will test similar within the next 50 years). Consciousness seems to allow a species the benefit of predictive foresight, an ability to see and understand the future. It’s an excellent adaptation allowing us to set in motion a plan for now that will increase our success in a to-be-determined ‘then’. Unfortunately every life is also a death sentence and there is no species we know of more acutely aware of that than humans.
According to some psychological theories we have specific neuro-psychological mechanisms of denial. In our everyday lives we do not contemplate death, indeed we will never possibly die as far as our brains are concerned. No, that’s a thought that creeps up on you when you’re staring at the ceiling on a sleepless night, surrounded by quiet and dark, it’s a grim thought when you hold your grandmother’s withered, paper-skinned hand, it’s the kind of thing you think about when you see a dead body, human or animal, and it gives us a start. There’s a little heart flutter, a surge of adrenaline that says “One day – snap – that’s it. Time’s up!”
So death and its associated ephemera, unless the culture of the day permits it, is taboo. Sometimes it’s ‘in’, think memento mori, particularly in Victorian times – They were very morbid then, culturally inspired partly by the death of Prince Albert so it was almost fashionable to think about death. Some cultures deal with it better than others, some cultures have to face it head on more than others, but certainly across Europe and North America death is an abhorrent thought.
If we take this back tens of thousands of years to everyone’s native homeland in Africa. A hunting party has been sent out but they didn’t return when you expected them to. You are worried. What is going to be one of the first noticeable signs, one of the portents, that something has gone terribly wrong? You won’t see if someone has been injured from the ground. You won’t see if a predator has got to them. You won’t hear their cries from that distance. But up in the sky you will see the circling of vultures.
You shouldn’t shoot the messenger, but if they only ever bring you bad news you will start to think ill of them.
That is where I suspect this negative view of vultures began. They would have been one of the first visible signs of a tragedy, of a massacre, of an accident, of that thing we so desperately want to avoid, death.
In my article about hyena (another species that would have made it on the list if I hadn’t covered them prior) we already talked about how things perceived of as thieves and scavengers are ill-thought of. There’s almost a human perception of nobility to hunting, and shame towards opportunism. We think of carrion feeders as being desperate, diseased, corrupted in some way. The truth is that’s a valuable service they’re performing! You’d be surprised how long it takes to break down a corpse with, versus without, carrion carnivores. I mean, bugs, fungi and bacteria might work fast-ish, but two spotted hyena could probably vanish a whole antelope, bones and all, in 15 minutes.
What’s the benefit of scavengers, though? Surely bodies would just break down eventually anyway. Yeah, of course they would, there are plenty of other organisms that will take care of that but, as I mentioned, they’re not all good – especially in large numbers – for the other animals and critters around. Never mind what the animal they’re scavenging potentially died of.
The internals of most vultures is incredible and it has to be. When you’re eating carrion, you’re eating danger. There’s a reason humans don’t do it and that is the risk of foodborne diseases. Vultures, they don’t give two shits. They have incredibly hostile, very acidic stomachs, strong enough to dissolve bone. Things like rabies, tuberculosis, anthrax and botulin – They’ll gobble it all down gladly with little-to-no ill effects.
Of course their internals might be pretty hardy but they are wild animals, prone to nicks and cuts and thus there is the potential for skin infections or getting a blood-borne disease (that’s a disease carried by or into blood, not becoming infected by FromSoftware’s 2015 PS4 exclusive) so surely they’re not so tough right. Well you would be correct if not for urohidrosis.
“What the fuck is urohidrosis?” you ask! Well I’m glad you did because like all of our favourite things here at We Lack Discipline it is gross, inappropriate, hilarious and cool as hell.
Many vulture species live in very hot climates, arid deserts, scorching plains, equatorial regions. What’s more they have dark feathers and spend all their day flying up in the air not huddling under the shade of trees. They can get very, very hot. As a method of assisting cooling themselves down they…
…They piss on themselves! Not just vultures, a lot of birds do it.
I know, it’s brilliant, imagine if we did that.
“Oh it’s a bit hot out today Susan, I think I’ll just wee on me own face, cool me down.”
But, as I mentioned, vulture internals are hostile. Their piss itself is highly acidic, so this urohidrosis serves a dual function, they can not only cool themselves down but also disinfect themselves with their acid piss.
Given that vultures are nothing if not diverse let’s give a good account of their basics and then I’ve got a couple of specific things I want to discuss. It’s birds, though, so get ready for some ridiculous Latin names.
Vultures fall into two families;
The Accipitridae includes the bulk of the Old World birds of prey, eagles, kites, harriers, hawks etc. Old World vultures, then, are not too different from your standard birds of prey. Quite hefty, muscular, keen vision, decent legs with long talons, a hooked beak for rending flesh, that sort of thing.
These old-world vultures of the Accipitridae fall into two subfamilies;
The Gypinae are probably what you think of when you think vulture. Large birds, big wingspans, bald heads and necks, long, hooked beaks. Species like the griffon vulture, the white-rumped vulture, Rüppell’s vulture – these are the species that look like ‘a vulture’, that have that stereotypical look you might find in a political satire or a Disney cartoon.
The Gypaetinae are less typical, but no less vulture. They include the bearded vulture, the palm-nut vulture and the Egyptian vulture. Unlike many of the Gypinae, these vultures often have feathers up the neck and sometimes even on the face. In the case of the palm-nut vulture, as its name suggests, it is also able to feed off of fruits, nuts and seeds and so does not have an exclusively carrion diet.
The other family of vultures is the Cathartidae. These are exclusively vultures (so no eagles and hawks in this family) and are the New World vulture species of the Americas, the condor family. They are not closely related to Old World vultures, so this is another example of the phenomenon of ‘convergent evolution’, where different species evolve similar traits to fulfil a similar niche in their ecosystem.
This means I don’t need a long complex description! They are large birds, similar in form to birds of prey, long hooked beaks, clawed feet and big wings.
This family includes some of the most obnoxiously beautiful and majestic birds in the world. We’re talking jealousy-inducing birds here. Species like the Andean condor which is probably up there for birds with the largest wingspan (2.5-3m, around 8-10 feet) which it uses to catch currents of warm air, thermal updrafts and soar for hours using its keen senses to find signs of nearby carrion. They are beautiful. I wish I could carry myself with a tenth the grace and majesty that a condor has.
In selecting species for this list I had a few in mind where they are personal favourites, things I like that are hated, and I knew I just wanted to talk about them enthusiastically.
For the rest of them, though, I have looked into animals that have interesting stories with their interactions with people. The wolf, for instance, is an excellent example. They have not been a significant danger to human populations for close to 500 years and yet the fear, rooted in folk-knowledge, passed through fairy-tales, this mythology, persists. Many people oppose reintroduction of wolves not because of any clear danger they pose to our wildlife, livestock or people but because they’re scared they’re going to dress up like grandmas and try to eat Little Red Riding Hood.
With the aye-aye I wanted to explore the notion of how we might perceive other cultures and how they persecute their native species. To get us questioning what could easily become a racist narrative and understand, instead, that just as we have our wildlife mythology and superstitions, they have theirs.
By the mole/pika instalment I brought this to a head! I presented both eastern and western species both persecuted in similar ways for similar reasons.
So (besides their beaks) what’s the hook with vultures?
Well whilst vultures have a bad reputation, are wildly misunderstood, and are definitely persecuted in some of their territories, most of the reason for their endangerment is not primary persecution (people deliberately killing the species itself) but the knock-on effect of human interference in the environment in other ways.
It ties in to my discussion in the last article about the need for foresight in the ways in which we plan our own endeavours. We need to ensure what we do fits in with the wider, wilder world, but also with the way we manage and deal with wildlife, ecology and livestock management issues. The people involved in the introduction of the cane toad to Australia did not do this, and are idiots.
Everything is interconnected. You cannot escape that no matter how much you try, you might pen your animals in but you’re tripping if you think they’re not going to have a knock-on effect on the environment outside that pen.
So let’s start by talking about the Indian vulture crisis – by no means the only crisis of a similar nature to have occurred regarding vultures but definitely an excellent case study.
Until recently (1970s, 1980s), India had a massive population (we’re talking 10s of millions into 100s of millions!) of vultures across a wide range of species, mainly of the Gyps genus which includes things like the white-rumped vulture (Gyps bengalensis) and the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus). These are likely the two main species that inspired the iconic vultures in the Disney animated feature ‘The Jungle Book’ (the ones that are a send-up of The Beatles).
This vulture population was incredibly important and not necessarily ill thought of in the Indian cultures. Given the huge Hindu population and their reverence for cattle, there are hundreds of millions of cows in India and very few people willing to eat them. Bovine corpses are not really disposed of and so they are left for the vultures to take care of. It gave these vultures a huge source of food, not only in rural areas but there were huge populations of urban and suburban vultures too.
Decreases in numbers started to be noticed in the 1990s, and scientists began looking for a reason. People looked at all the usual suspects, pesticides, bacteria, pollutants, novel viral infections and nothing came up. By this point most of the Indian vulture species had seen something ridiculous, like a 95% decline, in their populations. For example in the 1980s there were an estimated 80 million white-rumped vultures in India, it is now suspected they number only in their thousands! It’s dramatic, and yet nobody could pinpoint the cause!
It wasn’t until 2003 and an investigation by The Peregrine Fund, an international non-profit dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey, and their international team of scientists, studying the effects on vultures in Pakistan found a culprit.
So what was responsible for this drastic decline? The drug diclofenac.
It is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID); think a slightly stronger, prescription-only ibuprofen (Nurofen or Advil if you need a brand).
It was being used to treat livestock suffering from pain, inflammation or wounds. Except the problem was it is toxic to vultures, causing renal (kidney) failure.
The drug began to be used widely in India in the 1990s, and this compassionate treatment of injured, wounded or just old and arthritic livestock indirectly led to an extinction-level crisis in vulture populations as well as the knock on effects to the wider ecosystem.
As I’ve explained above, vulture guts are a very, very hostile environment. They are basically a pathogen end-zone! Without the vultures eating diseased carrion, animals like rats and dogs could get to them. Without the vultures to compete with them, their populations grew from all this food. But they aren’t a kill-zone for these pathogens, they are carriers! Plague, anthrax, rabies – these common diseases that would have met their maker in the guts of the vulture are instead picked up and carried by dogs, rats, cats etc.
This has a knock on effect to the human population. Cases of rabies in humans in India shot up in the same time period, made worse by increasing populations. An estimated 30,000 deaths occur from rabies each year in India, an estimate half a million people per year are treated. The economic cost has been staggering! We’re probably talking tens of billions of dollars spent on research and study trying to find the cause of the vulture decline, treatment of humans affected by disease preventable with sufficient vulture numbers, management of disease carrying animals like rats and feral dogs that would otherwise not be a problem with good vulture numbers – it all adds up!
The increase in easily available carrion, along with potential prey species like feral dogs, has also brought humans and India’s leopard population into conflict, as they encroach closer to human population centres.
It’s a cascade of effects, a road to hell paved with the good intention of alleviating the suffering of pained livestock.
Diclofenac has since been banned in India, Nepal and Pakistan for veterinary use and a replacement was quickly developed.
But the cost is clear to see. This otherwise innocuous, indeed thoroughly compassionate and thoughtful, act of giving animals anti-inflammatory drugs disrupted the whole balance of an ecosystem and brought billions of dollars’ worth of problems in its wake.
When I talk about foresight in ecology this is the stuff I am talking about. Life is chaos, true chaos, where chaos is defined as a ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’. The dramatic effects changing those initial conditions can have must be carefully considered beforehand. Before we release a drug, no matter how harmless it might seem, into a wild ecosystem, we first need to examine what animal it is being administered to and what animals or other organisms it might affect.
It took around 20 years to reduce vulture numbers by – depending on species, between 90-98%. It will likely take significantly longer to get them back.
How hard is it to get them back? Well let’s look at our other species for a good case study on that, shall we?
On Easter Sunday 1987 the last known wild California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was taken into captivity.
Finding estimates of their pre-20th century population numbers is like trying to find Jimmy Hoffa riding on the back of Shergar whilst Lord Lucan rides side-saddle clutching Hoffa’s waist.
At one time they were widespread across the entirety of North America, with fossil bones having been found as far East as Florida. The extinction of the megafauna in the Quaternary extinction, around 12,000 years ago, likely caused a significant reduction in range and population, moving them towards the Mid-West and Western North America. A remark from October 29th 1805 in the Lewis and Clark journals states “rained moderately all day. Saw the first large Buzzard or Voultur of the Columbia.”
Further descriptions in the same journals, including a sketch of a shot specimen, would indicate that this was the California condor and thus, in the early 19th century their distribution was as far North as the Columbia River and likely covered the whole Pacific North West. Again, numbers are hard to pin down but with a distribution that wide you could give them a ball-park ‘healthy’.
So why the decline? Well, not quite as accidental or good intentioned as the case of the Indian vulture crisis but still not primary persecution. Yes, there was some shooting and poaching of condor going on and evidence seems to indicate the earlier mentioned ideas about species close to death and decay hold true. People thought they were grim scavengers who spread disease, so they shot them.
The California condor, though, has been barraged by accidental and incidental problems. The biggest suggested cause for their decline is lead poisoning. Lead shot was often used in hunting across their habitats. Where species killed are either killed for sport or because they are perceived to be nuisance or pest species the hunters are unlikely to collect the bodies. The condors eat them and the strong digestive capabilities of the California condor mean the lead becomes dissolved in their system. Condors are a long-lived species (up to 50-60 years) and so accumulation of lead is not merely an acute problem but one that continues to be problematic over time.
The other massive problem they have is eating trash. Now you might be thinking “Well they’re dumb and they deserve it then!” but that would be failing to understand why birds such as the condor may eat rubbish items to begin with.
It’s my understanding there are three theories. One concerns standard large bird behaviour of seeking high-mineral content items for the purposes of egg production. Producing an egg, particularly the calcium-rich, hard shell takes a lot of resources and some birds specifically seek out minerals or bone chips as, effectively, a supplement.
There is another well-known bird behaviour that could account for the rubbish gobbling. Birds have highly specialised digestive and waste systems, by necessity. They need to keep their weight down to ensure flight and so carrying around excess food or liquids is inefficient. What cannot be digested and fit into their narrow intestines is generally held in the stomach until enough of a mass is formed to be expelled as a pellet, these get regurgitated up.
In the case of certain vultures these pellets would be, for example, keratinous tissues, hair, nails that sort of thing. Owls are the textbook example of pellet-making birds because they basically get rid of everything including the skeleton. As mentioned, vultures are pretty good at digesting bone and California condor are not necessarily eating hairy animals and their skin so much, so it takes a while to form enough of a mass to regurgitate. Therefore, one reason they may be eating inorganic matter is to aid in building up a sufficient mass of waste product so they can regurgitate it.
Finally, it could just be curiosity. I live by the coast, I once had fishy-residue on my hands, threw a pebble with them, and witnessed a European herring gull attempt to eat the stone, ditch the attempt half-way through, struggle to regurgitate it, get it out and move on. Plastic wrappers, bottle-caps, nuts, bolts, screws, bits of pipe, shards of glass with residue on them – maybe the condor is just curiously looking for something new to eat.
So, anyway, regardless of how or why condors end up eating trash they end up with it in their systems. If it doesn’t cause digestive problems, stomach perforations, blockages in the crop or digestive tract, it often gets regurgitated when they are feeding their young and a study on California condor chicks did put a significant amount of infant mortality down to this trash-munching issue.
The final slather of sadness on this shit sandwich is pollutants. The strength of their eggs, the thickness of the shell and the structural integrity seems to be a problem with the coastal population of California condors. Mercury poisoning, the old pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, and polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs – a multi-use chemical group used in various fluids, lubricants, electronic components like capacitors etc. that seems prone to building up in the tissues of fish or aquatic mammals – these chemicals all seem to affect the structural integrity of the condor egg.
The result of all this misfortune was that by the early 1980s numbers of condors were estimated to be around 25. Not 25 hundred. Not 25 thousand. 25.
By 1985 this was reduced to fewer than 10 wild birds remaining and by this point serious discussions were had about the future of the California condor. It was decided that it would be best for the condor if all wild specimens were taken into captivity. This decision would have been helped by the first successful captive hatchling in San Diego Zoo in 1983.
A huge amount of investment; mental, monetary and presumably emotional, went into the California Condor Recovery Program (CCRP). In 1987 the population was 27 individuals, 10 former wild, 17 reared in captivity.
The following year successful captive mating was recorded, eggs were laid and temporary releases of the Andean condor into the California condor range (to ensure viability of survival for a wild population) took place. Those Andean condors were later recaptured, and re-released in their native South America, having done their job and shown it should be possible to reintroduce California condor once individuals were ready.
By 1992 birds were being re-released into California.
It was noticed by 1995 that a lot of birds were dying due to inferring with power lines. As a result the ways in which condors were being behaviourally conditioned were adapted to make them more averse to humans, human habitations and power lines.
A year later in 1996 releases took place in Arizona.
By 2001 nests of re-introduced condor were being noticed in Arizona and Southern California, and there were a known 58 California condors living in the wild. Over double their 1980s numbers!
By 2008, continued problems with lead shot were being noted and lead ammunition was banned in the condor’s range in California. This was extended to all of California in 2019.
The current estimated population of the California condor is 435. Of that, 268 are known wild individuals and 167 are captive. In 2017 the species was re-introduced in Mexico.
So you might be thinking, “I thought animals raised in captivity couldn’t go back to the wild because they’re too used to humans?”
This is where I’m so happy I could cry because for once this project had some damn foresight, used caution, was tentative, took little steps, learned lessons, adapted and succeeded.
Yeah, it was a problem to start with, the condors were getting too close to human habitations and clipping themselves or frying themselves on damn power lines. So the conservation teams came together and figured out ways to completely remove humans from the equation. But how do you raise a chick in captivity without interaction with people?
I’m not even joking – where condors have to be raised by humans they have cages half-blocked off so they can’t see the humans and they are fed by an imitation condor-head puppet.
When they first took them into captivity do you know what they did? Exactly what I would have done! Split them up.
Why? For genetic diversity. You capture these birds and the first thing you’re going to want to do is make sure the most distantly related and genetically diverse individuals are mating with each other. By separating the populations you then create splinter communities. Then what happens? Well we’ve got Captive Male A over here with his sister Captive Female A. You don’t want those two mating! Meanwhile you’ve got Captive Female B and Captive Male B? Swapsies! You can have Male A and Female B and Male B and Female A get together and that way you can encourage the genetic diversity and prevent inbreeding depression effects.
They noticed lead-poisoning effects (and both adults and nests are regularly monitored to check their levels of lead) and initiated a lead-shot ban.
They noticed problems with interactions with power lines so they trained the birds to avoid them!
Life succeeds by increments, by adaptations in small steps. Sometimes giant leaps do seem to occur, but they are usually facilitated by disaster, and at the expense of a dying breed. Ecology needs to operate on the same principles.
It took a long time to figure out the reason for the Indian vulture crisis, but we did come together and figure it out, before it was too late. There are likely enough vultures in India that they don’t need dramatic intervention like the California condor in order to begin thriving again, but their improvement will be slow, steady, as life is wont to do.
The California Condor Recovery Program is still, to my mind, the single greatest ecological project humans have ever performed. We took a species that without drastic intervention would have been made extinct, we came together, came up with remarkable, innovative ways to ensure its survival and success. When I say the way the team went about it makes me so happy I could cry I’m not even kidding.
It may be too early to suggest it has, truly, been a success yet. But there are around 20 times as many California condors in the wild now than there were 40 years ago. That’s a very rare pattern and a testament to the hard work of all those who worked on the project.
When we see vultures portrayed in popular media they are done so as scruffy, diseased scavengers. They are reflections of greed, of picking-the-bones. They clutch tightly with their talons on to those age-old, primal feelings that death is something best buried and ignored.
Yet they are themselves the very essence of life, environmental cleaners, and protectors of us, of other animals, of the environment, from life-threatening toxicity, sickness and disease. In the cultures where they are common they are respected as such. The condors have much significance to Indigenous and ancient cultures in the Americas. The ethno-religious Parsi of India would place their dead upon a Dakhma, a raised tower, so that they vultures could consume the body and free the soul. They no longer do that due to the lower number of vultures and how long it takes for the bodies of their loved ones to disappear.
Vultures are an excellent example of how we, deliberately or accidentally, can cause havoc on our local ecosystems. They are also a remarkable example of how, by working together, by investing, by recognising the value of our environment and our ecosystems, by working within them, we can actually all be better off.
Not only that but vultures are a perfect example of how, in having made a mistake, in having thought ill of an animal, we can apologise, we can attempt to make amends, we can realise that we were wrong and change our minds and our hearts.
For all their connotations of death, vultures are not the ominous bony reapers. They are Charon, the Ferryman, compassionately carrying us across the Styx.
Without species like that we are an environment of decay and lost souls.
Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Wolves
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps