How The Peregrine Fund is Helping
The Peregrine Fund was a key player in discovering the dangers of the drug, Diclofenac, to vultures. We were also the first conservation organization to set up “vulture restaurants” in South Asia. "Vulture restaurants" are where biologists set out carcasses that had never been treated with Diclofenac so they are safe for vultures to eat. We also do a number of other important things to help protect vultures. We support local students, we work with communities to educate them about the importance of vultures, and we continue to monitor the populations to help us understand if populations are stable, rising or going down.
Where They Live
The Red-headed Vulture is found throughout much of the Indian Sub-continent and other parts of south Asia including Pakistan, China, Tibet, Laos and Vietnam, to name a few countries.
This medium-sized vulture can be found most often in wide open country, wooded hills, dry deciduous forests or river valleys, deserts, wetlands, and foothills, usually not reaching over 2,500 - 3,000 meters above sea level.
What They Do
Have you ever heard the joke - "What is black and white and red (read) all over"? The answer, of course, is a newspaper. But, the answer could also be the Red-headed Vulture, though it probably wouldn't make for a very funny punchline.
Though you probably already shrewdly deduced that the Red-headed Vulture has a red head, you might not know that its neck, wattle, thighs and legs, all of which are lacking feathers, are also bright red. These bare red patches really stand out because they contrast nicely with the vulture's dark black beak, wings and back. The Red-headed Vulture also has distinctive white patches on its thights and breast, making it one of the easier vultures to identify.
When a whole bunch of vultures get together to feed, this called a "wake of vultures". However, the Red-headed Vulture, it seems, isn't much interested in joining in. It is mainly a solitary species - except when roosting. When feeding, typically only one or two can be found at a single carcass.
Like most vultures, the Red-headed Vulture doesn't make a lot of vocalizations - instead prefers to perch or soar in silence as it observes the world around it or forages for food. However, when it wants to, it will croak and hiss when in battle with another vulture for the first bites of a carcass.
To learn more about why vultures are so cool and amazing, watch Munir Virani's TED talk called "Why I Love Vultures."
Why They Need Our Help
Throughout South Asia, vultures were once some of the most numerous large raptors in the world. However, biologists began to notice a steep decline in the numbers of many different species of vultures they were observing in the mid 90's and early 2000's, including those of the Red-headed Vulture. One survey noted a drop of over 90% in population numbers! It took biologists a while to discover the cause of the decline, but when they did, they knew they had to act fast to prevent the loss of these beautiful birds.
The main threat to the survival of this and most other vulture species across southern Asia is the use of a drug called diclofenac. Diclofenac is a medicine people give their livestock (cattle, donkeys) when they fall ill. Though diclofenac may help their animals feel better for a little while, eventually the animals will get sick again. When the cow or donkey who has been treated with this drug dies, the diclofenac remains in their system. When vultures feed on the remains of these animals, they unknowingly swallow meat and tissue that contains traces of this drug along with their meal. The diclofenac poisons the vultures, which makes them very sick. Many of them die because their kidneys fail.
In 2003, The Peregrine Fund first discovered the catastrophic relationship between diclofenac and declining vulture populations in south Asia. Thankfully, the drug was banned for veterinary use in 2006 by India, Pakistan and Nepal, and Bangladesh took similar action in 2010. Sadly, despite the ban, diclofenac is still widely available in some parts of these countries and other drugs with similar effects are also still on the market. Biologists and conservationists are working hard to protect this species, but there is still a lot of work to be done!
The Peregrine Fund also helps support vultures worldwide by promoting and celebrating International Vulture Awareness Day, which is the first Saturday in September each year! You can help by celebrating this day on your own by going out and watching vultures in your area, or by encouraging others in your family, school or neighborhood to celebrate too!
What They Eat
Like most other vultures, the Red-headed Vulture is mostly a carrion feeder - meaning it eats animals that are already dead. Its menu consists mostly of carcasses of large livestock, as well as deer and even jackals. The Red-headed Vulture has also been observed killing birds that are already wounded and fish stranded on the shore.
Like all vultures, Red-headed 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. 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. Yeah vultures!!!
Nests, Eggs, and Young
The Red-headed Vulture has a lovely courtship ritual. As described by Naoroji in his book Birds of Prey of the Indian Subcontinent, he writes "For such large vultures the display is remarkably agile and eagle-like, involving mutual soaring, often one bird sailing close above the other. Mates chase each other with much diving and twisting... Occasinally, pairs lock talons, cartwheeling downwards for just a few seconds before cleanly separating."
The Red-headed Vulture will build its nest in the crown of tall trees. In areas where no tall trees can be found, they will resort to building nests in thorny acacias or shrubs. The male and the female will work together to build their nest using available sticks and twigs. Once the nest structure is completed, the pair will line it with grass, fur, wool and other similar materials.
When a pair first builds a nest, it is usually relatively small. However, over the years the pair will make additions and repairs to the nest. Eventually, it will grow into a very large structure, which can measure more than 1 meter (3 ft) across! It has also been known to find a "fixer-upper" nest - an old nest built and abandoned by another vulture or raptor species. The Red-faced Vulture will repair this old nest and move right in!
When the time is right, the female will normally lay one large, white egg. Just like with nest-building, both the male and female Red-headed Vulture will share in incubation duties. They must take turns sitting on the egg for almost two months! Once the chick hatches, both the male and female will also take turns brooding their young for up to another two months. They sit over the chick, making sure it is kept at just the right temperature - not too hot and not too cold, so it can grow into a healthy fledgling.
In order for the chick to grow, however, it also needs to eat well and eat a lot! The parents must work hard to make sure their young gets enough sustenance. Unlike an eagle or a falcon, which rips off small pieces of fresh meat, which they carefully feed to their nestlings, vultures have a very different way of feeding their young. A nestling vulture's diet is composed entirely of regurgitated food until it is old enough to feed itself. Now you might be wondering how this all works. Well, the adults will eat what they can and then fly back to their nests. Once there, they will actually throw up - or regurgitate - the semi-digested food into their nestlings’ mouths, which the young birds happily and greedily eat. Though it might seem gross to us, it is actually a very efficient and safe way for vultures to bring food to their young. About four weeks after their young has hatched, the adults regurgitate directly into the nest for their offspring.
After about 4-5 months, the young vulture fledges, or flies for the first time.
Red-headed Vulture and World Center for Birds of Prey
The World Center for Birds of Prey offers fun ways to learn about birds of prey. Interactive activities, tours, interesting videos and a children's room with activities from coloring sheets and quizzes to costumes and a touch table are available for the curious mind. We also have several different birds of prey on display year-round, including California Condors and a Turkey Vulture. This is a great chance to see some vulture species up close. Come for a visit, where our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about the Red-headed Vulture or other birds of prey. If you are in Boise at the beginning of September, get in touch with our education crew at the Velma Morrison Interpretive Center to learn about International Vulture Awareness Day activities.
BirdLife International. 2017. Sarcogyps calvus (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22695254A118371885. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-3.RLTS.T22695254A118371885.en. Downloaded on 14 March 2018.
Clark, W.S., G. M. Kirwan, and D. A. Christie (2020). Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps calvus), 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.rehvul1.01
Global Raptor Information Network. 2017. Species account: Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 1 Dec. 2017
Naoroji, Rishad. Birds of Prey of the Indian Subcontinent. OM Book Service,India (November 30, 2008) pp 282-287.
Oaks, J. Lindsay, Martin Gilbert, Munir Z. Virani, Richard T. Watson, Carol U. Meteyer, Bruce A. Rideout, H. L. Shivaprasad et al. "Diclofenac residues as the cause of vulture population decline in Pakistan." Nature 427, no. 6975 (2004): 630.