How The Peregrine Fund is Helping
The Peregrine Fund has been working in Kenya and in other African nations since the very early 1990s. Our efforts focus on scientific field studies, including placing radio transmitters on vultures to better understand their movement patterns related to where they travel and why.
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 the dangers of poisoning, and we provide hands-on training to students and local biologists. Since 2017 we have been creating awareness about the dangers of using highly toxic pesticides and training community leaders about how to respond if they discover a poisoning incident: what to do, who to call, and what data to collect. To date we have trained over 300 people in areas adjacent to wildlife conservancies and parks. And our trainings have already had an impact. One of our trainees intervened to stop a lion poisoning that surely would have killed many vultures as well.
Watch Peregrine Fund biologist, Munir Virani, give his TED talk entitled "Why I Love Vultures."
Where They Live
The White-headed Vulture has a relatively wide but patchy distribution - meaning there are large areas of land where this bird cannot be found. Imagine the vulture's range like a giant yellow shirt sewn together in parts by various red patches that don't touch or overlap anywhere. Can you see it? Now imagine that the White-headed Vulture is only found in a few of those red patches, leaving a lot of the t-shirt (or landscape) void of its presence. Hopefully this gives you a better idea of what it means to have a patchy distribution.
Getting back to talking about its real range, the White-headed Vulture has been documented mostly within protected areas (such as national parks and wildlife preserves) within Sub-Saharan Africa from Senegal east to Ethiopia and Somalia, south to Namibia and northern South Africa. It is mostly absent from unprotected lands where it is rarely seen.
Now you might be wondering, if this vulture has such a spotty distribution, what type of habitat does it live in? Truth be told, the White-headed Vulture can be found in a mosaic of different habitats including woodlands, grasslands lightly dotted with a mix of deciduous trees, thornvelds - which are arid grasslands dominated by thorny shrubs and trees - often acacia - and other vegetation, and even in sub-desert areas. However, it does tend to avoid densely wooded habitats and areas with lots of people.
It is more readily found in lowlands than at higher elevations.
What They Do
The White-headed Vulture is a large vulture and, along with the Egyptian Vulture, could be considered one of the most colorful of the Old World vultures. As you may have guessed, the White-headed Vulture has ... drum roll please... a white head! And on top of its white head is a small white crest which appears to be quite soft! Its upper breast, back and wings are painted a motley of browns, while its belly, legs and lower feathers are white, contrasting nicely with its black tail feathers. However, the beauty of this bird really shines when you see its face. Its dark reddish beak and light blue cere, brown eyes, and the rosy hue along its mostly featherless neck and face create a virtual pastel rainbow! And, its feet are a pale pink, too - tying the whole outfit together, of course.
Unlike some vulture species which can be quite gregarious, the White-headed Vulture is considered to be the most solitary of the African vultures. This means that one or a pair of White-headed Vultures rarely hang out with other White-headed Vultures. In fact, it is most often seen by itself or with one other bird. Even at a carcass feeding frenzy, usually only 2-6 of these birds are seen at one time.
The White-headed Vulture is also a bit of a loner when it comes to nesting. You won't find it building its nest in large colonies - close to other vultures. Instead, it keeps a good distance between its nest and those of its neighbors.
The White-headed Vulture is the only known sexually dimorphic vulture species in Africa. Sexually dimorphic means the males and females differ in outward appearance (i.e. size or plumage coloration). In the case of the White-headed Vulture, the male has dark grey secondary feathers while the female has white secondaries. The females are also believed to be larger than the males.
Read on about he White-headed Vulture's diet and breeding behavior to learn why some scientists believe it acts more like an eagle than a vulture!
Why They Need our Help
The White-headed Vulture, like many vultures across Sub-Saharan Africa, is suffering alarming population declines. In fact, this species had to be uplisted from "Vulnerable" to "Critically Endangered" in 2015, because of the large drop in their numbers. In fact, biologists estimate that close to 97% of the population has been lost over the past few decades.
It took biologists a while to discover the cause of these declines, but when they did, the answer was shocking.
In Africa, vulture numbers are falling dramatically due to illegal poisoning by pesticides, and one pesticide in particular, Carbofuran or Furadan, has been used extensively for this purpose. Pesticides are being misused by livestock owners and some pastoralists to poison predators like lions and hyenas that attack their livestock. When pesticides are sprinkled on a dead cow that is fed on by other animals, they die too. This affects not only lions and hyenas, but also jackals, vultures, Tawny Eagles, Bateleurs, and even storks! Populations of White-headed Vultures, White-backed Vultures, Rüppell's Vultures and Hooded Vultures have been so badly affected by these poisonings that they are threatened with extinction.
To make matters worse, some poachers are using pesticides to poison vultures for another reason. When a poacher kills an elephant or a rhino or any other animal illegally, they don't want the authorities to know about it. For example, if they kill an elephant and take its tusks, leaving the rest of the carcass behind, vultures will soon come to feed. If park rangers see vultures circling in the sky, they know that something has died and may investigate. To cover up their crimes, poachers lace the carcass of the animal with a pesticide. When vultures come down and feed, they get sick and die and, since dead vultures are less likely to be spotted than live ones, this terrible crime allows the poachers to escape before anyone learns what they have done.
Despite efforts to ban it, Furadan is still easily available over the counter in Kenya and in most other countries in Africa.
What They Eat
You might be noticing that the White-headed Vulture is quite unique among African vultures in a number of ways - from its solitary nature, to its breeding habits. Another way that it differs from many of its neighbors is that it is not reliant on large carcasses for food. In fact, it is quite skilled at finding smaller carcasses on its own, avoiding the hustle and bustle of a vulture feeding frenzy that occurs at large carcasses such as that of an elephant or zebra.
While it might not be too surprising to hear that this vulture feeds on smaller carcasses, it might come as a shock to learn that they don't feed strictly on dead things, either. This is one of the few vulture species known to hunt and kill its own prey! It might feed on things such as stranded fish, mongoose, lizards, snakes, insects, piglets, and birds.
The White-headed Vulture is also quite a skilled thief when it needs to be. It is adept at stealing, or pirating, the prey of other predatory birds. It might fly at and harass a bird it sees with prey, forcing the unsuspecting raptor to drop or abandon its kill - leaving it free and clear for the White-headed Vulture to feast on.
Nest, Eggs, and Young
The White-headed Vulture breeds every year. Unlike many other African vulture species, the White-headed Vulture is not a colonial nester, preferring instead to establish its nest at least 5-9 miles (8-15 km) away from any other White-headed Vulture pair. The vultures build a large nest made out of sticks, and it is usually placed in the crown of a tall, solitary acacia or baobab tree.
Scientists have discovered that some pairs will have two or more nests, alternating among them each year. When the time is right, the female will lay one egg, which must be incubated for around 55 days - about the same time a Harpy Eagle incubates its eggs! Both the male and the female White-headed Vulture will share the incubation duties. They will also both brood (sit on the nestling to help keep it warm on chilly days or keep it cool on hot days) until it is able to regulate its own body temperature. As the young nestling grows, both parents also make sure it has plenty to eat.
If you have read other species accounts about vultures, you know by now that most vulture species feed their young by regurgitating (or throwing up) their own food - either directly into the nestling's mouth or into the nest cup, where the young nestling can then gobble it up on its own. The White-headed Vulture feeds its chicks in the same way. However, researchers also were able to observe a case of a White-headed Vulture feeding its nestling the way an eagle might - by carefully ripping off pieces of food and passing them to the nestling beak to beak.
After about 100 - 115 days of care by the adults, the nestling will be ready to leave the nest and fledge - or fly for the first time.
White-headed Vulture and The 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. Come for a visit, where our knowledgeable staff and volunteers are on hand to answer any questions you may have about White-headed Vultures or other birds of prey. While at the center, take a walk along our short nature trail. You might catch a glimpse of a wild raptor soaring overhead or perched on a nearby fence post.
Global Raptor Information Network. 2021. Species account: White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis. Downloaded from http://www.globalraptors.org on 6 Aug. 2021
Kemp, A. C., G. M. Kirwan, D. A. Christie, and C. J. Sharpe (2020). White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis), 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.whhvul1.0