Guardians of Nature – Discovering India’s Vultures

Vultures play a crucial role as nature’s cleanup crew across diverse ecosystems like forests, grasslands, and deserts. They have evolved to thrive in various environments worldwide. Globally, there are 23 vulture species, with 16 inhabiting the Old World (Europe, Asia, Africa) and seven, including condors, residing in the New World (North and South America). India alone is home to nine vulture species. Interestingly, Old World vultures trace their ancestry to the eagle family, while New World vultures belong to the turkey family. Despite their different origins, both groups have adapted similarly to their scavenging role in the ecosystem. Old World vultures rely heavily on keen eyesight rather than a strong sense of smell; a soaring vulture can spot a 3-foot animal carcass from up to 4 miles away.

 

The role and adaptation as scavenger

Vultures are highly specialized scavengers adapted for feeding on decaying animal carcasses. Their unique body features enable efficient scavenging and protection against bacterial infections. Vultures possess a digestive system with special acids that can dissolve harmful bacteria like anthrax, botulism, and cholera present in decaying flesh. They can consume up to 20 percent of their body weight in one feeding session. Vultures typically do not target healthy prey but may occasionally scavenge wounded or dying animals. The bald or lightly feathered head of vultures is specifically designed to remain clean and free of contamination, even when feeding on carcasses with blood and bodily fluids. Any remaining germs are effectively sterilized by the sun.

Vulture species found in India

  In India there are 9 species of vultures are found. These belongs to five different genera, in which except Gyps all others are represented by one species only. Out of nine species three are critically endangered.

Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus)

The bearded vulture is a unique bird species that stands out for its large size and distinctive features. It is closely related to the Egyptian vulture and shares similar anatomy and breeding behavior. This bird is easily recognized by its very large size, narrow wings, long diamond-shaped pointed tail, and a massive, hooked bill. One of its most notable features, which gives it the name “barbetus,” is the long black bristles that stick out from the base of its beak, resembling a beard. The bearded vulture has a prehistoric and striking appearance, making it one of the most impressive raptors and a symbol of rugged mountain landscapes.

These vultures are residents of mountainous regions and are commonly found throughout the Indian Himalayas. They breed at elevations ranging from 1200 to 5000 meters but can soar up to 7500 meters. They are most frequently seen at higher altitudes. Bearded vultures primarily scavenge bones, although they also feed on fresh and old carrion. If they come across a large bone that they can’t eat directly, they carry it high into the sky and drop it onto rocks to break it into smaller pieces for consumption. Researchers have even observed these vultures’ carrying turtles into the air and dropping them onto rocks to crack open their shells and eat them.

Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus)

 The Egyptian vulture is a small vulture found from Southern Europe to India and Africa. They have long, narrow pointed wings and a distinctive long, wedge-shaped tail with 14 feathers (more than the usual 12). Their bill is long, slender, and hooked at the tip. Unlike most birds, their head is mostly bare except for some “woolly” feathers on the crown, and they have a prominent lanceolate ruff on the short neck. They have long legs with long toes and claws.

These vultures are fairly common and can be abundant across their range. In the Indian subcontinent, there are two resident races of Egyptian vultures. They live throughout most parts of the subcontinent except the Trans-Himalayan region, Northeast India, and the islands.

Egyptian vultures are versatile in their habitat choice but prefer dry, open areas such as deserts and agricultural lands near human settlements. They often scavenge around human habitations, feeding on refuse and carrion. They are opportunistic scavengers and consume a variety of animal remains including birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and organic waste like rotten vegetables. Unlike other vultures, they are less reliant on large carcasses for food.

 

Egyptian vulture or Neophron percnopterus perched on tree trunk with a beautiful clean and green background at jorbeer conservation reserve, bikaner, rajasthan, india

 

Indian White-backed Vulture (Gyps bengalensis)

 The Indian white-backed vulture is a medium-sized vulture with a hunched appearance due to its neck and head withdrawn into its shoulders. They are often seen in small to large groups near carcasses, as well as perched on electricity pylons, trees, forts, and old buildings. They have brownish-black plumage that contrasts with slate-gray flight feathers. Their head and neck are naked and blackish-grey, sparsely covered with white down, and they have a prominent whitish ruff at the base of their neck, which is a distinctive feature.

These vultures are resident birds and were once the most common and abundant large raptor across almost all biogeographical zones in the Indian subcontinent, except for the Trans-Himalayan region and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. They range from Pakistan to Arunachal Pradesh along the Himalayas, typically occurring between 1500- and 2500-meters elevation but not usually breeding below above 1060 meters. They are also found throughout the Peninsula to Kanyakumari. Today, they are most commonly found in desert and semi-arid zones, followed by the Gangetic plain, Deccan Peninsula, and the Western Ghats.

Indian white-backed vultures feed exclusively on carrion, ranging from small animals like a dead jungle cat to large animals like an elephant, whether the carcasses are fresh or decaying. They mainly feed on dead livestock such as cows, goats, bullocks, and buffaloes left out by villagers. In forest areas, they may feed on kills made by carnivores or on animals that have died from disease or other causes.

 

White rumped vulture, Gyps bengalensis, Kabini, Karnataka, India

 

Indian Long -billed Vulture (Gyps indicus)

 The Indian long-billed vulture is a medium-sized vulture, smaller than the Eurasian griffon but larger than the Oriental white-backed vulture. They can be identified by their perched posture, with a naked blackish to grey-brown head and neck sparsely covered with white down feathers. They have a buff ruff at the base of their neck. The feathers on their back are sepia brown, and the upper wing coverts are a pale sandy brown, appearing overall pale and mottled. Their upper tail and flight feathers are blackish-brown, with outer primaries darker than the rest of the flight feathers, and secondaries tinged sepia on the outer webs.

These vultures are often seen perched near carcasses in small groups, though they are not as numerous as white-backed vultures. They can be distinguished from white-backed vultures by their blackish neck with some whitish down feathers mainly on the crown, along with a paler body and wing coverts. At a distance, they appear paler overall with a slighter build and slenderer bill compared to white-backed vultures. Indian long-billed vultures are resident birds found throughout the Indian mainland except in the Northeast, Himalayas, and Western Ghats. They exclusively feed on carrion, particularly dead livestock, and also scavenge on kills made by large carnivores like tigers, leopards, or other predators.

Slender-billed Vulture (Gyps tenuirostris)

 The Indian white-rumped vulture differs from the Indian long-billed vulture mainly in having a completely bare head and neck, darker and browner upper plumage, and more brownish underparts with less fulvous coloring. They are further distinguished by a black cere (area around the base of the bill) and short, sparse feathers on their white downy thighs. The bill of the white-rumped vulture is also more slender compared to the long-billed vulture.

These vultures are found throughout the Himalayan foothills, with their range extending mainly from the Gangetic plain and Brahmaputra valley to the adjoining northern foothills up to 1800 meters elevation, spanning from Himachal Pradesh to Arunachal Pradesh and throughout the Northeastern hill states. They are most common in the Northeast region. They share habitats with white-backed vultures in open areas and forest margins within their range but also forage and breed well within forested areas. White-rumped vultures exclusively feed on carrion, particularly dead livestock, and natural kill remains within forested habitats.

Also Read : Guide to Birding in Jim Corbett National Park

Himalayan Vulture or Griffon (Gyps himalayaensis)

 Adult Himalayan Griffon vultures are easily identified by their very pale plumage. Their heads and necks are covered with thick, short yellowish-white feathers resembling down, with a naked pinkish foreneck often visible. Adult birds have a whitish and woolly ruff around their necks. They have a typical perched posture and profile similar to other vulture species. These vultures are massive and conspicuous in the Himalayan habitat, being virtually the largest vulture in the Indian subcontinent. Their whitish bodies and wing-coverts contrast sharply with their dark flight feathers and tail. The Himalayan Griffon is distinguished from the Eurasian Griffon by its overall paler plumage without the tawny hues of the Eurasian species.

Himalayan Griffon vultures are common residents throughout the Himalayas. They sometimes overlap in range with the slightly smaller Eurasian Griffon during winter, especially when juveniles and immature birds descend to lower foothills. During this time, they can be commonly seen as low as 300 meters in the Central Himalayas. These vultures exclusively feed on carrion, playing a crucial role in cleaning up the environment by consuming dead animals.

 

Himalayan vulture or Gyps himalayensis or Himalayan griffon vulture during winter migration at jorbeer conservation reserve bikaner rajasthan india asia

 

Griffon vulture or Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus)

 The Eurasian Griffon vulture is recognized by its dense white down covering the head and neck, along with prominent hair-like plumes forming a cream-buff to yellow-white fluffy ruff. When perched, these vultures exhibit the typical Gyps posture with their neck and head withdrawn between their shoulders, and their huge wings covering most of their body and tail. In winter, they are often seen singly or in small groups around carcasses. They stand out due to their large size, pale cinnamon-brown color, and small, downy head with a long extended downy white neck visible during interactions with other vultures over a carcass.

During winter, some Eurasian Griffon vultures migrate to the plains in India from areas outside their typical range. The migrant population consists mainly of juveniles and immature birds, along with a few adults. Like other Gyps vultures, their feeding behavior is exclusively focused on carrion, playing a vital role in the ecosystem by consuming dead animals and helping to prevent the spread of disease.

Cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus)

 The Cinereous vulture, one of the largest Old World vultures, is slightly smaller on average than the Himalayan Griffon. It is distinguished by its huge size, long wings, marginally wedge-shaped tail, massive and strongly hooked bill, partly feathered tarsus, short toes, and mostly down-covered head with a naked neck featuring a ruff at the base. The Cinereous vulture has uniform brownish-black plumage, making it distinctive when perched or in flight. Its large size allows it to be visible from a considerable distance, often perched upright with large wings almost concealing its body and head withdrawn between its shoulders.

These vultures are mainly migrants to northern India and are sparse breeders, primarily in the northwestern Indian Himalayas. Breeding has been specifically recorded in Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, between 2400 meters and 3000 meters, and in the Barail Range of North Cachar, Assam, at 1800 meters elevation.

Cinereous vultures primarily feed on carrion, ranging from large animals like dead cows to smaller prey like foxes or mice. They are also known to scavenge or hunt tortoises and terrapins, extracting meat from under the carapace.

Red-headed Vulture (Sarcogyps salvus)

 These vultures are medium-sized and stand out with their naked, colorful heads and necks adorned with large wattles or flaps of skin hanging down from each side of the upper neck. They also have a ruff, heavy bill, and long toes, with mostly black plumage. Even at a distance, perched birds are unmistakable due to their larger size and upright posture on bare ground or tree crowns. Their overall jet-black plumage contrasts with paler flight feathers in good light, and they have striking reddish bare parts on their head, neck (with pronounced red wattles), thighs, and legs.

Widespread but locally uncommon, these vultures are rare to fairly common residents in different areas of their range. They are never numerically abundant due to their territorial nature and exist at naturally lower densities compared to gregarious vulture species. They primarily feed on carrion from cattle, deer, antelopes, and small mammals like jackals. Additionally, they may target slow or wounded birds as part of their scavenging behavior.

 

Vulture Crisis in Indian Subcontinent and Conservation Efforts

 The vulture crisis in the Indian subcontinent, exacerbated by the widespread use of the veterinary drug diclofenac, caused a catastrophic decline in vulture populations, particularly affecting species like the Indian white-rumped vulture, Indian vulture, and slender-billed vulture. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was estimated that the vulture population had declined by a staggering 97 percent compared to previous decades. The main culprit was diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used to treat livestock, which proved lethal to vultures when they consumed carcasses of treated animals.

In response to this crisis, significant conservation efforts were undertaken. The Indian Veterinary Association banned the use of diclofenac as a veterinary medicine to protect vultures from further harm. Moreover, breeding centers were established to safeguard and breed vultures in captivity. Prominent breeding centers include the Vulture Conservation and Breeding Centre in Pinjore, Haryana (established in 2001), the Bombay Natural History Society’s Vulture Conservation Breeding Centre in Maharashtra (inaugurated in 2006), and the Jatayu Conservation Breeding Centre in Assam (established in 2008).

These breeding centers played a critical role in the recovery of vulture populations by providing a safe environment for breeding and rearing chicks. Conservationists focused on rehabilitating vultures and successfully releasing them back into their natural habitats once diclofenac use was curbed. This comprehensive approach aimed to restore vulture populations and secure their future survival in the wild, marking a significant milestone in conservation efforts to protect these iconic and ecologically important birds.

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