How The Peregrine Fund is Helping
The Peregrine Fund has been studying vultures in Kenya and other African nations since the early 1990s. Our initial efforts focused on scientific field studies, including placing radio transmitters on vultures to better understand their movement patterns related to where they travel and where they are most exposed to poisoning.
We conduct environmental education programs in the countries in which we work to help teach people about the importance of protecting birds of prey and their habitats, and we provide hands-on training to students and local biologists. In 2013, we implemented the Maasai Mentor program, in which Maasai adults selected a few children to "take under their wings" and teach them about Maasai tradition and conservation. The goal of the project was to build a long-term vulture monitoring and conservation program through community-driven efforts and create a network of young people inspired to prevent wildlife poisoning, enhance vulture populations and make a positive difference in the lives of Maasai youth.
In addition, we also 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.
We are now focusing our conservation efforts on Rapid Response to Poisoning trainings.
Watch Munir Virani's TED talk about "Why I Love Vultures."
Where They Live
The Lappet-faced Vulture is found throughout much of Africa, though its distribution is considered to be somewhat patchy. It can be found in parts of a long list of African nations including Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan, Somalia, Swaziland, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. It is also found in Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
This enormous vulture prefers open, semi-arid or arid habitat, including deserts, steppes, grasslands, savannas, and open woodland, especially if there are some scattered acacia trees around for it to perch on. It is less likely to be found in wetter or forested areas. In fact, this species occurs in extremely dry areas, including the Namib, Kalahari, Somalia, and, formerly, Negev Deserts.
What They Do
A "lappet" is a decorative fold or flap - often found on an item of clothing. Of course, in the case of the Lappet-faced Vulture, we aren't speaking about its wardrobe. The Lappet-faced Vulture has various folds and flaps on its head, making it look like it is wearing a fancy headdress or a scarf. This, coupled with its red face, black eyes and large, two-toned beak, makes this one of the most visually interesting vultures around. Some might even call it downright beautiful! The rest of its body is covered in dark brown feathers, with some white feathers mixed in. Its thighs are covered in bright white feathers, making it look like it is wearing old-fashioned bloomers!
As nature's clean-up crew, vultures and other carrion eaters often consume organisms in dead and decaying animals that are harmful to humans and the environment. In fact, around a hundred of these birds can strip a 100-pound carcass in a matter of minutes, thereby helping to contain any spread of disease. They truly help keep us safe and the environment clean!
Vultures like to be clean, too. In fact, it is important for all birds to keep their feathers neat and well-groomed. But you’ve never seen a bird with a hair brush, right? Instead, they use their beaks to clean, or preen, their feathers.
Like all vultures, Lappet-faced Vultures have very few feathers on their heads. When they eat, they often need to put their heads deep into the cavities of rotting carcasses. If particles of this meat got deep into their feathers, they might cause bacteria or germs to grow. Though some people might think vultures look ugly, the fact is a bald head helps keep vultures healthy – and the more healthy vultures we have around the better.
But there is another reason that vultures have only fine, small feathers on their heads. Their bald heads might also help them to stay warm or keep cool, depending on the weather. When they are cold, they can tuck their necks in, closer to their bodies, to keep them warm and cozy. When it is hot outside, vultures can extend their necks soaking up the sun's rays through the skin on their necks and heads. When it really wants to get out of the heat, taking off into flight also helps - as the cold air rushes past its (mostly) bare skin patches.
Many people mistakenly believe that vultures are dirty animals because of their steady diet of dead animals. However, the exact opposite is true. Vultures enjoy bathing and can spend quite a bit of time around watering holes. And speaking of bathing, vultures also spend time sunbathing, or sunning, as well. But, it isn't because they want to get a tan! Among other reasons, it is to help keep their feathers healthy and clean.
Scientists believe that when birds sun, this actually helps rid their feathers of unwanted and dangerous parasites. These parasites like to hide deep in a bird's feathers. Exposing them to sunlight, and the related heat, causes the parasites to move around, making it easier for the birds to pick off the parasites when they clean, or preen, their feathers.
Why They Need our Help
The Lappet-faced Vulture is one of the most widespread African vulture, but it is scarce in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It has disappeared from much of its former breeding range and suffers greatly from poisoning and human persecution in southern Africa. In fact, in one single poisoning event, 86 birds were killed which represents about 10% of the total Namibian population!
Unfortunately, the threats to this species don't stop there. Scientists have found that these vultures have also died by drowning in farm reservoirs, through electrocution, collision with power lines, disturbance during breeding, habitat destruction (loss of nest trees), and changing land use patterns due to expanding human populations.
The Lappet-faced Vulture is considered Endangered.
What They Eat
The Lappet-faced Vulture is mainly a scavenger - meaning it doesn't kill its own food, but rather will feed on animals that died from other causes (such as from disease, or malnutrition). However, this vulture has also been known to actually prey on small mammals (such as rabbits and hares), domestic stock, flamingo nestlings, and maybe even lizards.
Unlike the New World Turkey Vulture, which relies on scent to find its food, the Lappet-faced Vulture, like most Old World Vultures, relies on its eyesight to find its next meal. In fact, it spends a lot of time soaring high in the sky, covering great distances, in its effort to find food.
The Lappet-faced Vulture has a particularly strong, sharp beak which allows it to more easily break into the tough skin of dead animals. This helps other, smaller scavengers who might have a harder time getting into the carcass. The Lappet-faced Vulture is often dominant over other vulture species that congregate to feed at a large carcass. This means that the Lappet-faced Vulture might chase other birds off the food, or other birds may simply step aside and let it eat first.
Nest, Eggs, and Young
The Lappet-faced Vulture usually constructs a large nest platform - that can measure up to 2 meters in diameter - out of large sticks and twigs. The nest is usually set close to the top of a large tree in an otherwise open area. Some Lappet-faced Vultures will nest in relative isolation (away from other vultures), but some will choose to nest in loose colonies - meaning small groups of vultures will nest within a short distance (about 1 km or so) of each other.
The female will usually lay only one egg, though sometimes she can have up to two eggs in one clutch. The eggs are white with rusty-colored splotches and need to be incubated for about 56 days! Both the male and the female will take turns incubating, though the female probably spends more time overall at this task.
Once the nestling has hatched, both parents work hard to care for their young. At least one adult will remain in or very close to the nest - day and night - until the nestling is about 2 months old. They will defend their young against potential threats, such as ravens and even other vultures. Once the nestling is a bit older, both parents will forage for food. They can’t carry food in their feet like many raptors do. Instead, the adults store food for their young in their crop, a special pouch inside their throats where food sits before it travels to the stomach to be digested. When the adult returns to the nest, it regurgitates, or throws up, this food, which the young chick happily eats.
But parental duties don't end at defending the nestling and feeding it. Researchers have also observed parents deliberately providing shade for their nestlings by positioning themselves just so and spreading their wings.
It will take the young vulture around 5 months before it is able to become independent of its parents' care.
Lappet-faced Vultures are able to successfully breed when they are about five or six years old.
Lappet-faced Vulture and The World Center for Birds of Prey
The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about raptors. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets and quizzes to costumes and a touch table are all available for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-round, including California Condors and a Turkey Vulture. Come for a visit to see vultures up close and learn more about these fascinating birds! Our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about Lappet-faced Vultures or other birds of prey.
Global Raptor Information Network. 2021. Species account: Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 6 Aug. 2021
Kemp, A. C., D. A. Christie, and C. J. Sharpe (2020). Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (J. del Hoyo, A. Elliott, J. Sargatal, D. A. Christie, and E. de Juana, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.lafvul1.01