White-Backed Vulture

Scientific Name (Genus): Gyps Africanus

The white-backed vulture is similar to many other species of vultures in colour, but is distinguished by its distinct white plumage. The top of its wings, back, and neck are all a stark white, which contrasts with the rest of its dark coloring. It’s famed for its white behind which can only be seen when the bird is in flight. Younger white-backed vultures are usually entirely dark.

  • Body length: 31-39 in (78-99cm)
  • Weight: 9.3–16lbs (4-7.2kg)
  • Wingspan: 6-7ft (1.8-2m)

Diet and Feeding Habits

This animal is a scavenger, meaning it feeds off of what it can find to eat in its vast geographical environment; for vultures, this means carrion, the carcasses of dead animals. They feed on dead warthogs, zebras, gazelles, ostriches, and even livestock. They can only feed on animals with soft tissue, since their beaks are not adapted for tearing tough skin like their cousin, the King Vulture.

Vultures spend a lot of time circling in the sky in search of food. They may follow other vultures or carnivores, as these animals can lead them to fresh food. When they find food, they wheel around in the sky to signal to other vultures that there is potential food found.

White-Backed Vulture
White-Backed Vulture

White-backed vultures are quite social, and they often eat together. As many as a hundred birds could all gather together, and strip a carcass clean very quickly. Although they are usually silent, they occasionally make squealing sounds when approaching a meal.

After eating, white-backed vultures are often so full that they can’t fly. Instead, they rest with their wings stretched out and their backs to the sun. Their talons are blunt. Their stomachs are unique, being able to handle many diseases including distemper, bubonic plague and anthrax and many other biological problem. Flora in their gut, and gastric juices with a low PH destroys up to 60% of deadly micro organisms and the other 40% are neutralized.

This social behavior extends to other areas of their life. They often roost in “colonial” communities of 10 or more birds, and make their nests in trees, most often acacia or other tall trees. They live in the western, eastern, and southern parts of Africa, and it’s not uncommon for them to venture into nearby human settlements in search of food.

Breeding and Offspring

These birds are also monogamous, meaning that they have only one partner. They breed once a year during the dry season, and females will lay one egg. Both parents take turns incubating the egg for two months until it hatches. Then, they share the responsibility of raising the young vulture. Baby white-backed vultures are ready to leave the nest after four months, but they often stay with their parents longer.

These large African vultures play an important role in the upkeep of the savannah for all creatures. Their collective power to strip a carcass in about three minutes prevents dangerous viruses and bacteria from growing on a dead animal. According to Nat Geo insects don’t have time to infest the carcass, preventing the spread of eye diseases.

Featherless Head of The White-Backed Vulture

White-backed vultures are large for vultures. They weigh between four and seven kilograms, and can be 78 to 98 centimeters long. Adults often have a wingspan between 1.9 and 2.3 meters (up to 7 feet).

White-Backed Vulture, 7 feet Wingspan

Fantastic Facts About The White-Backed Vulture

The bald head of the white-backed vulture allows it to regulate heat during hot and cold spells. Importantly the featherless head is more hygienic than a feathered head which can collect germs more easily when stripping a carcass.

Scientists recorded a young white-backed vulture fly 600 miles in search for food in one day.

Conservation Status:

Sadly, these birds are endangered. Their population is dropping, with an estimated 270,000 alive today. There are two main reasons for the population decrease: loss of habitat and poisoning.

The loss of habitat is caused by elephants , humans expanding agricultural zones, and fires. All of these can destroy the trees that they call home. For this reason, white-backed vultures try to nest in areas away from elephants (who like to rip up acacias) and human intervention.

The poisoning is often unintentional, with farmers giving anti inflammation drugs to livestock which is fatal to vultures. Farmers also sometimes put chemicals such as Carbofuran or Furadan in livestock in revenge attacks on carnivores, like lions from killing vultures, and use pesticides; when the vultures ingest these, it can cause serious harm to their bodies or worse.

The Peregrine Fund is helping to educate people about the white-backed vulture and prevent unnecessary loss of these birds:

We installed anti-predator systems around Maasai livestock enclosures, called bomas, and evaluated their efficiency as a means to stop livestock depredation and subsequently deliberate wildlife poisoning.

Peregrine fund

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