Nairobi Culture Vultures!- Article by Gareth Jones
Vultures Of The Nairobi National Park
The stench of rotting flesh permeated the air in the area around the dam and tar road near the No2 junction. For some days now many people had watched lions feeding on a buffalo carcass, but by now the lions were looking very full and were showing less interest in food. The very belly full lions gradually began to move away and rest in the shade of the thick bush near the dam.
Suddenly as if by signal, large flocks of various types of vultures advanced on the buffalo carcass. As they climbed onto the remains to feed, a lioness watched them and decided to chase them off. She ran at full speed towards them, feathers flew everywhere as they escaped. The lioness stood proud and still in the middle of the clearing, then slowly turned and walked away. It was not long before the vultures landed again, and began to feed on the buffalo. The lioness stood up as if to repeat the chase, but she decided not to and lay down to digest her meal.
Vultures play a vital role in nature to clean-up. Their sharp beaks and talons are efficiently designed to quickly reduce the carcass remains to bones. The cleansing role they play ensures that there is less disease by reducing flies. However, sadly many people do not know how important they are, and they have even been poisoned in some parts of Africa. Even though vultures do not look very handsome or beautiful, they can be fascinating to watch. It is good practice when in wild areas, to watch for vultures as they often point to where predators such as lions etc have killed.
While vultures do not have a reputation for being the most handsome or beautiful birds, even though they do feed on dead carcasses and rotting flesh. I have regularly observed how much time they spend preening and cleaning themselves, especially after they have eaten. They are very particular with their hygiene culture, and will even venture into water at various dams to soak their feathers and then flap wildly while in the water as they enjoy a refreshing birdbath. Thereafter as they emerge from the water, they flap their large wings and stand with their wings wide open to dry in the sunlight.
A vulture’s stomach acid is significantly stronger and more corrosive than that of other animals or birds. This allows these scavengers to feed on rotting carcasses that may be infected with dangerous bacteria because the acid will kill that bacteria, so it does not threaten the vulture. In actual fact, vultures have stomach acid so corrosive, they can even digest anthrax. Vultures have relatively bare heads and often bare necks so that when they feed on rotting carcasses, bacteria and other parasites cannot burrow into thick feathers to cause infections. This allows the birds to stay healthier while feeding on material that would easily infect other animals.
The Nairobi National park has a least 5 confirmed vulture species that frequent the park, with some species like the Rüppell’s griffon vulture, flying from as far as hells gate national park to be in the park. Other species include the hooded vulture, white-headed vulture, white-backed vulture and the larger majestic lappet-faced vulture who tend to dominate other vulture species at kill sights.
Vultures tend to use the thermal movement of warm rising air to rise upwards after taking off. This is normally achieved during the heat of the day. They look rather clumsy as they first run rather awkwardly while flapping their wings to take off, before rising rapidly as they catch an upward thermal, and then proceed to move in seemingly lazy circles in the sky as they fly without even flapping their wings. Vultures can travel large distances with the winds and also use this vantage point to seek carrion for their next meal.
So next time you are in the park try a bit of “vulture culture” by looking for the big “clean-up” birds. A tell-tale sign of a predator kill is seeing trees full of vultures, waiting patiently for the moment, when they can fly down and feast on the remains. who knows they could reward you with a large cat sighting?