The Egyptian Vulture

 Africa, Asia, Birds, Deserts, Endangered Species, Grasslands, Mountains  Comments Off on The Egyptian Vulture
May 062010
HomeAfrica, Asia, Southern Europe
HabitatHot, dry regions
Favorite FoodCarrion, eggs, cow manure, rotted plants
LengthUp to 28 inches
WeightUp to 4 pounds
Threatspoaching, poisoning

With its wrinkled yellow face and feathery locks like white hair, the Egyptian vulture has a strangely human look of cunning. Once a common sight across the dry expanses of Africa and Asia, these small scavengers are now endangered, driven to the fringes of their former range by forces out of their control.

Egyptian vultures are small for carrion birds, not much bigger than crows. And like crows, they have a broader capacity for problem solving than most birds. There’s no better example of their ingenuity than their behavior around ostrich eggs on the African savannah. An unguarded ostrich nest is a boon for any animal, especially a scavenger in regions with fierce competition for food. However, such a small bird can’t get into such an imposing egg without help. So over thousands of years, these crafty vultures have developed proficiency in a very powerful adaptation. Tools.

That’s right. Tools aren’t just for humans and those in the animal world most like us. Egyptian vultures are one of the few birds that can truly make use of tools in the wild. Once a bird has located an egg, it will search the surrounding ground for a suitable stone, pick it up in its beak, and hurl it down on the egg repeatedly. All it needs is a crack in order to pry the egg open with its beak before 300 pounds of angry ostrich mother discovers what it’s up to.

Egyptian vultures need to be wily because they so often get muscled out of the pecking order at carcasses by other vultures. Even if they do reach a dead animal first, they’re not powerful enough to tear meat from a fresh kill. They must wait for stronger scavengers like hyenas and white-backed vultures to shred the flesh for them.

Nowadays, the Egyptian vulture is a rare sight in much of Africa and Asia where up until very recently it boasted impressive numbers. Ironically, these birds that help stall the spread of disease to humans have been pushed to the brink under the mistaken belief that they spread it. Also, improved veterinary medicine has done wonders for livestock, but has wreaked havoc on these birds once certain chemicals enter the food chain and poison them. Strange how the first bird ever protected by law (in Ancient Egypt) is now facing such grim prospects in a more enlightened age.

*filmstrip photo provided courtesy of belgianchocolate on Flickr Creative Commons

The Orangutan

 Asia, Endangered Species, Mammals, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Orangutan
May 042010
Home – Borneo and Sumatra (South Pacific)
Habitat – Tropical forests
Niche – Arboreal herbivore
Favorite Food – Fruit (especially figs)
Height – Up to 4.5 feet
Weight – up to 300 pounds
Status – Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, Bornean orangutans endangered
Threats – Loss of Habitat, illegal pet trade, poaching

Of all the faces of the forest, few look so much like our own. The “Man of the Woods,” a great ape covered head to foot in thick red hair, lives in the forests of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in the South Pacific. He is the orangutan.

Orangutans are the largest apes on earth after the gorillas of Africa, but shaped much differently. Gorillas are heavy and stocky, suited for life on the floor of the dense jungle canopy. Orangutans are built for life in the trees above. Long limbs power these swinging great apes from tree to tree bent under their weight to shorten distances. Young orangutans are lighter and able to swing further than the oldest and heaviest who live life at a slower pace. In a way, the youngsters move like their slimmer cousins to the north, the gibbons.

The man of the woods doesn’t kill animals to eat unless you count insects. Most of what an orangutan puts in his mouth is fruit and he’s content with what the trees provide. Food, shelter, and recreation are all found in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra for these mostly solitary folk on a life journey that can last many decades.

The man of the woods can’t live without it, and there’s not much left. Many years ago, people set aside national parks to protect patches of forest from the fate they’d likely suffer if unprotected. For a while, the heat of fires and roar of power saws were kept at bay. But wads of cash under the table go far in the developing world. Those who can afford it have a taste for wooden furniture and palm oil, and when there’s demand, supply follows. On islands with small economies and high levels of poverty, timber and agriculture are crucial to those who call them home. Economies, laws, and livelihoods collide in this unique corner of the South Pacific. For the orangutan, things are complicated indeed.

There aren’t many men of the woods still living in the great Indonesian forests. On Sumatra, several thousand remain, enough to fill a small town in your own corner of America. In Borneo, tens of thousands of orangutans still roam the forests not yet felled. Things could be worse. 60,000 orangutans is better than 10. But the numbers aren’t going up.

*filmstrip photo provided by Chi King

Jan 102010
photo provided courtesy of on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSouth Asia
Habitattemperate mountain forests
Nichearboreal omnivore
Favorite Foodbamboo
Lengthup to 4 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 13 pounds
Threatsloss of habitat

The red panda couldn’t look more different than the better-known giant panda. Aside from a similar color pattern on its face, this member of the raccoon family is a far cry from the gigantic black and white panda in terms of looks. It’s much more raccoon-like, with a slender body and a long, bushy tail that helps it balance in the trees of Southern Asia where it lives.

Red pandas prefer dense temperate forests below the tree line on mountain slopes in Asia. The trees allow them access to the tender leaves and shoots of bamboo and as shelter from predators. Red pandas feed primarily on bamboo, but supplement their diet with fruit, grubs, eggs, and small animals. They communicate with others of their kind primarily by smell, marking territories with any number of secretions and excretions. In the world of the dense forest, animals like the red panda must rely on senses other than sight.

Females bear litters of between one and five offspring in nests built into hollow tree trunks and attend to all of the parental care. Not unlike some human relationships, the male involvement in fostering the new generation ends with mating.

Like many other animals dependent on trees, the red panda has fallen victim to loss of its natural habitat. As the forests have fallen in Southern Asia in the past half century, so have the numbers of red pandas in the wild. They are now exceedingly rare and there may be as few as 2500 left.

The Atlas Moth

 Asia, Invertebrates, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on The Atlas Moth
Jan 032010
photo provided courtesy of internets diary on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSoutheast Asia
Habitattropical forests and grasslands
Nichelarge flying insect
Favorite Foodplant leaves in larval form
Wingspanup to 10 inches
StatusVulnerable to extinction
Threatshabitat destruction, specimen collection

In the forests of southern of Southern Asia there lives an insect so large that it defies belief. Brilliantly colored with wings big enough to cover your laptop screen, the atlas moth is truly a sight to behold against the lush green backdrop of its tropical habitat.

Atlas moths belong to the largest family of moths, called saturniid moths or emperor moths. About 800 species make up this family, and among them are the biggest moths on planet earth. The atlas moth is near the top of the list, with adult female wingspans measuring as much as 10 inches across, attached to a body the size of a human thumb. Females are larger than males, but lack the broad, feathery antennae.

photo provided courtesy of internets diary on Flickr Creative CommonsLike all butterflies and moths, atlas moths begin their life cycle as larvae called caterpillars hatched from eggs. These caterpillars voraciously consume as much plant material as possible in preparation for their next stage of life. Gobbling a variety of plant leaves, they must store a certain amount of energy before they spin hairy cocoons about their bodies. Within the cocoon, they are protected from many predators and begin the process that turns them into the adult, winged moth form. Surprisingly, adult atlas moths do not eat. They must consume enough food in caterpillar form to both molt into their adult form and sustain the flight of a giant adult insect. Adult lives are spent searching for mates and avoiding predators, working on a tight timeline. Since they can’t eat, they need to accomplish their life goals without the ability to buy more time before death.

Despite their size, atlas moths do not possess much in the way of a defensive arsenal. However, like other moths, they can use their bright, spotted coloration to confuse predators. If an atlas moth is disturbed, it will thrust its wings forward, flashing its bright spots. Often, the sight of what appears to be a much larger, different animal is enough to startle a predator long enough to allow the moth to fly away.

Atlas moths are protected in some regions of Asia due to threats posed by habitat destruction and collection. Since they are so huge and spectacularly colored, they are a favorite specimen to mount on display. Like many other animals living in the tropical rainforests of Asia, the atlas moth will only survive if we’re committed to letting it do so.

Great Indian Hornbill

 Asia, Birds, Tropical Forests  Comments Off on Great Indian Hornbill
Dec 092009
photo provided courtesy of rajkumar1220 on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSouth and Southeast Asia
HabitatForest Canopy
NicheNonmigratory Omnivore
Favorite FoodFigs
Wingspan5 feet
Weight6 pounds
StatusLower Risk

In the murkey morning gloom over the forests of Vietnam, something that sounds like a fell beast flaps overhead with massive 5 foot wings. As its alights in some distant tree, a great blast like a trumpet issues from the fog. Something lives in the Asian forests that dwarfs nearly all others that share the trees. A bird bigger than an eagle with a massive weapon of a beak, the Great Indian Hornbill is among the most spectacular birds on earth.

The best feature in the mirror for hornbills is the massive bill, clearly. The size of a rhinoceros horn and crested with a knobby lump called a casque, the bill is used for two things: snatching and breaking. Although this massive bird of flight feeds predominantly on fruit (especially figs), it will snatch up whatever small animal it can with a flick of the beak. Once secured, little is likely to escape. If it’s a lizard, the great indian hornbill will simply flick its head back and swallow it whole it one gulp. Anything larger and it employs a more violent tactic, battering the trapped body into nearby tree branches. Harmless to man, the hornbill is nonetheless a formidable presence in the Southeast Asian forests where bears and tigers roam.

Great Indian Hornbills don’t often fly. Instead, they hop sideways from branch to branch in the dense canopy of the Asian rain forest. However, they can fly, and when they do, it’s quite a spectacle. Their giant “whooshing” wingbeats can be heard by people over a half mile away. It appears that mythology of giant, imposing birds isn’t far out from reality. Yet far from fearsome, the great indian hornbill instead performs a crucial service to the rainforest. As it snatches up fig fruit and any number of seeds during a hard day’s feeding, it will spread those seeds to a new area every time it has to take a dump. As the fertilized seeds germinate and compete for light, they’re able to carry on the next generation of trees outside of the dark shadow of the tallest trunks. In reforestation efforts, the great indian hornbills are valuable stewards.

photo provided courtesy of rajkumar 1220 on Flickr Creative CommonsGreat Indian hornbills mate for life, and family life is a fascinating affair. After mating, the pair will secure a nest in the hollow trunk of a tree. Then, as the female sits inside and the male remains out in the forest, both birds begin to construct a wall of mud, twigs, and leaves between themselves. The female is entirely walled inside the tree for several months save a small hole in the mud barrier. The hole is used for two things: to allow the male to pass food into the female, and secondly, to allow her the opportunity to take care of…”business.” I wouldn’t want to be an animal roaming along that particular treetrunk when a female great indian hornbill defacates at high velocity out the interior.

After three months with the single chick, the mother will break out of the nest with her strong bill to get a proper meal herself. Junior will then repair the damaged barrier, walling himself inside the tree for another full month while mom and dad attend to him from the outside. When that month is up, he’s free to experience the world in all its danger and wonder.

Great indian hornbills cannot survive without the trees. They need them for the food they produce. They need hollow trunks to build their nests. They need the trees to hide from predators and to stalk prey. They need them to rest and to roost. There are not many forests left in Asia.