What is big, bald, and known as nature’s garbage disposal? Vultures!
The first Saturday in September is World Vulture Awareness Day. It may seem strange to devote an entire day to a fearsome-looking bird species but vultures are very important to the world’s natural ecosystems. Vultures are critical in all habitats because they consume dead animals – reducing the risk of transmitted diseases. Vultures have many unique characteristics and adaptations that allow them to accomplish this task. Their bare heads, and, often bare necks help to protect them from infections caused by burrowing bacteria and other parasites as they feed on rotting remains. A vulture’s stomach acid is also significantly stronger than other animal species, continuously working to kill harmful bacteria.
There are 23 species of vultures in the world, found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The vulture can be found in a wide variety of habitats. Unfortunately, 14 species that are listed as threatened or endangered. Here in Oklahoma, we have two species of vulture, the black vulture and the turkey vulture, neither are endangered.
The California condor, native to the United States, came extremely close to extinction in 1987 when its numbers dropped to just 27 individuals. With swift human intervention in the late 1980s, all of the remaining California condors were caught and introduced into captive breeding populations. Since then, the California condor population has increased, and individuals have been released back into the wild. In 2016, there were 446 California condors in the wild and human care.
In other parts of the world, vulture populations are decreasing at an alarming rate. Many species of vultures are endangered or at risk because of human interference, primarily through inadvertent poisoning. Antibiotics and anti-inflammatory drugs (Diclofenac) used on livestock in Asia and Africa cause liver and kidney damage for vultures that feed on livestock remains. Food shortages are a threat tovultures as animal populations continue to decrease in the wild. For example, the illegal ivory trade is specifically linked to vulturenumbers declining. Poachers are poisoning elephants for their ivory. Vultures are known as nature’s clean up crew, so when they feed on the remains of poisoned animals, they ingest the poison, too. Vulture activity is easily spotted when feeding on large animals such as elephant carcasses. Poachers intentionally target vultures to prevent the timely discovery of their victims by law enforcement officials.
You can help vulture populations by opposing the use of dangerous veterinary drugs, such as Diclofenac, in livestock worldwide. By supporting the protection of other animals, particularly elephants, you can also help to protect vulture populations.
Join us on September 2 for Vulture Awareness Day at the Zoo's Andean condor exhibit, located near the Herpetarium building, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There, you’ll be participate fun activities, enjoy keeper chats and much more! Become a part of nature’s clean up crew! Help us to ensure a future for vultures worldwide.
– Eddie Witte, Zoo curator of birds and carnivores