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

Jan 152010
photo provided courtesy of mybulldog on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeNorth and South America
Habitatvaried: tropical and temperate forest, grassland, desert, and mountains
Nichenocturnal hunter
Favorite Foodsmall mammals
Lengthup to 2 feet
Weightup to 5 pounds
ThreatsHabitat destruction

The Great Horned Owl is the largest owl in North America, and its range extends from Northern Canada down to Tierra del Fuego. It gets its name from the tufts of feathers on either side of its head that resemble horns from a distance. A silent killer of the night, it is one of the world’s most successful birds.

Great Horned Owls are some of the most sedentary birds in the world, rarely venturing far from their home tree. Because of their adaptations, they don’t need to fly far in search of food. Small mammals are plentiful across the Great Horned Owl’s wide range across North and South America, and this amazing bird has an extensive hunting arsenal. Its binocular vision is so acute that it can spy a mouse over 100 feet away, and its hearing can detect tiny movement in the leaf litter below its tree. Although owls can’t move their eyes in their sockets, they can turn their heads almost completely around their axis, allowing them to zero-in on prey. Finally, the soft feathers of an owl muffles the sound of flight, making its deadly approach nearly silent up until the point it sinks its razor-sharp talons into an unfortunate animal.

Great Horned Owls make their nests in trees, usually in a hollowed-out trunk or the abandoned nest of a hawk or crow. In sparser areas, they will nest in rocky alcoves. Although the female is the one to incubate the eggs, both parents will tend to the fledgling chicks for about 6 weeks until they leave the nest. Great Horned Owls are very territorial birds, even when not rearing young, but will defend their nests with resolve. They have been known to dive-bomb humans to frighten them away from their trees if they get too close.

Habitat destruction is the greatest threat facing Great Horned Owls because of their dependence on trees for nesting. However, their wide range has afforded them a buffer against encroachment, and they are still common in many regions of North and South America.

The Andean Condor

 Birds, Mountains, South America  Comments Off on The Andean Condor
Jan 092010
photo provided courtesy of orchidgalore on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeWestern South America
Habitatmountains and coastlines
Nichelarge aerial scavenger
Favorite Foodcarrion
Wingspanup to 11 feet
Weightup to 25 pounds
StatusNear Threatened
Threatshunting, poisoning, habitat loss

The largest flying bird in the world carves its home among the jagged peaks of South America’s Andes Mountains. Soaring as high as 18,000 feet on rising air currents, the Andean Condor is one of the most impressive birds on Planet Earth.

It is a giant bird, with a body measuring nearly 4 feet in length and weighing up to 25 pounds. In order to keep that kind of weight aloft in the air, the Andean Condor uses its massive wings that can stretch 11 feet from tip to tip. Although that wing length is rivaled by other birds like large storks and albatrosses, no other bird comes close to the wing area of an adult Andean Condor. It relies on these giant wings to stay aloft, preferring to gain altitude and glide on rising thermals rather than expending energy on more propulsive flight. Using only a few wing flaps, this condor can travel huge distances in its search for food thousands of feet below.

Like all other vultures, the Andean Condor is primarily a scavenger, feeding on animal carcasses that dot the mountains and coastline of western South America. It uses its keen eyesight to locate everything from dead alpacas to beached whales from dizzying heights aloft. In addition to carrion, Andean Condors also will frequent the nesting grounds of seabirds on the Peruvian Coast. They snatch eggs from the nests of other birds that are no match for their intimidating size.

Andean Condors have fared better than their critically endangered cousins to the north, the California Condors. However, they are subject to similar threats due to their breeding habits. They produce only a single egg every two years, which means that a significant reduction in population could spell disaster for the species as a whole. Luckily, the remoteness of their habitat in the unforgiving heights of the Andes and their plentiful supply of dead meat has protected them so far.

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.

The Marabou Stork

 Africa, Birds, Grasslands  Comments Off on The Marabou Stork
Nov 062009
photo provided courtesy of Chadica on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeSub-Saharan Africa
Habitatvaried: grasslands, wetlands, tropical forest
Nichelarge opportunistic predator, scavenger
Favorite Foodcarrion
Heightover 4 feet tall
Weightup to 17 pounds

The marabou stork won’t win too many friends with its looks. A huge, gangly bird with a naked pink head, a throat sack that looks like testicles, and a habit of defacating on its own legs to cool down, it is a repellent creature. It was even the subject of a dark novel by Irvine Welsh, best known for writing Trainspotting. But those who look past the surface of the marabou stork may just discover a remarkable and endearing animal.

After all, there must be some reason why it was one of the most popular exotic pets illegaly exported from Senegal for 30 years.

One of the most startling features of this great bird is its sheer size. An adult can stand well over 4 feet tall. Marabou storks also boast some of the longest wingspans of any flying creature on earth, reaching up to 10 and a half feet. To add to the creepiness factor, the marabou stork is completely mute. Instead of vocalizing sounds, it claps its bill together when excited or communicating to potential mates.

Primarily a scavenger, the marabou stork is built for feeding on dead things. It boasts an enormous bill for gulping down chunks of food and like vultures has a naked head. The lack of feathers helps the stork to stay clean and avoid infection when feeding on festering carcasses. Blood dries faster on bare skin instead of feathers and the sun can more easily kill off bacteria when the germs are directly exposed. Hanging around the outskirts of a kill, marabou storks will wait until large predators like lions eat their fill and leave.

Despite its preoccupation with carcasses, the marabou stork is a master opportunist, often seen around rubbish heaps and garbage bins. They’ve also been observed fighting with feral dogs for scraps lining the streets of African villages. Fishing villages in East Africa are a common destination for the storks as well. They’re no stranger to gobbling scraps and then resting on rooftops or in the shade of huts. Not one to always be the thief, the marabou stork will also hang around shallow lakes and marshes searching for small animals to snap up.

With its gangly appearance, ability to live off of just about anything, and its genuinely odd character, the marabou stork is as bizarre as it is fascinating.