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 Hamed Saber on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeworldwide
Habitattropical and temperate forests, grassland, suburban
Nichemost are herbivorous, some species feed on other insects
Favorite Foodplant juices
Lengthup to 1 inch
Notable Featurethey produce a foul-smelling liquid to ward off predators

There are over 5,000 species of stink bugs worldwide, and they range in color from drab green and brown to brightly-colored red and yellow. Most species suck juices from trees and shrubs, but a few prey on other insects. As a result of their feeding habits on commercially-valuable crops, some species are serious pests to humans.

Stink bugs are also known as shield-bugs because of the shape of their bodies. They have broad “shoulders” that taper into their abdomens below their folded wings. They have strong angular legs for gripping plant stems and have specialized mouthparts for piercing and slurping. They are very common insects and can be found nearly everywhere in the world where there’s vegetation.

Stink bugs are so-named because of their defense against predators. If they’re disturbed, they will eject a noxious liquid from special glands in their thorax. The smell and taste of this bitter chemical weapon is enough to deter many predators and to put off a casual human collector. The bright coloration of many species is a warning sign to predators that it doesn’t taste very good. Sometimes coloration alone in the animal kingdom does the trick without needing to deploy the weapon being advertised.

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 Waterbuck

 Africa, Grasslands, Mammals  Comments Off on The Waterbuck
Jan 102010
photo provided courtesy of gsz on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeWestern, Central, and Eastern Africa
Habitatgrasslands and tropical forest
Niche large herbivore
Favorite Food grass
Lengthup to 8 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to nearly 700 pounds
Status Lower Risk for Extinction
Threatshunting, habitat loss

Waterbucks get their name from their main defense against predators on the African Savanna. When threatened, they will bolt to the nearest body of water and quickly submerge themselves. Although it’s not the most daring way to save skin, lions don’t swim. The French also gave a name to these giant antelopes that didn’t quite stick through the ages – greasy kob. The name refers to an oily secretion produced on the fur that acts as a smell signature for other waterbucks as far away as 500 miles.

Despite its ability to evade land predators, life is still difficult for a large, tasty herbivore on the vast grasslands of Africa. Fewer than 20% of males will live long enough to defend their own territory against other males during the mating season. The male waterbucks that do pass this rite of dominance are left with something besides a plentiful supply of females. Waterbuck territories are carved out bordering rivers and ponds, where the grass is greener and the avenue of escape is wider.

Waterbucks are among the more common antelope in Africa, owing to their wide distribution and better adaptability to marshy environments than their relatives. Apart from crocodiles and lions, the biggest threat to waterbucks is man. They thrive on both grassland and plentiful fresh water, so if either shrinks, then so will waterbuck populations.

African Wild Dogs

 Africa, Endangered Species, Grasslands, Mammals  Comments Off on African Wild Dogs
Jan 062010
photo provided courtesy of Rennett Stowe on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeAfrica
Habitatvaried, from open grassland to scrub forest, desert, and mountainous regions
Nichesocial pack hunter
Favorite Foodgazelle
Lengthup to 4 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 80 pounds
Threatshabitat destruction, hunting, disease

African wild dogs are pack hunters, using cunning and strength in numbers to take down large prey like wildebeest on the open grasslands of East Africa. Although they are smaller than gray wolves, another well-known pack hunter, they are perhaps the most social dogs on earth, and use their developed behaviors to take down prey faster and larger than themselves. The packs average about 7 or 8 individuals, but some can grow as large as 20. Because of the size of the packs and their wide movement, African wild dogs hunt at least once a day to snare enough food.

Few predators are as formidable as a pack of African wild dogs. Individuals can run at sustained speeds of over 30 miles per hour for up to 3 miles without tiring. Their endurance is matched with an uncanny ability to execute intricate plans of attack, especially to catch animals that evade lead dogs. Usually the packs will attack smaller mammals like gazelles, but occasionally will take on large animals like zebra and wildebeest. When attacking the latter, the dogs will charge a herd in an attempt to separate the weak or sick individuals. Moving in, they will clamp down on the prey’s tail and lip, while other members of the pack bite at its underside to bring it down.

Like gray wolves, African wild dogs exhibit a strict hierarchy within the pack, with a dominant male and female seated at the top. However, these dogs are different in that there are twice as many males as females and all the males are related to each other in a pack. The dominant male gets mating rights and mating usually only occurs between him and the dominant female. Simultaneous births of litters do occur and when they do, they threaten the bonds of the pack. During these situations, fights break out and females battle each other for the right to raise the next generation, which often results in the youngsters being torn to pieces in the fight. Unlike other social dogs in the wild, the aggression with African wild dogs is usually confined to the females of the pack rather than the males.

photo provided courtesy of I Love Trees on Flickr Creative CommonsAfter decades of persecution, habitat loss, and disease, the remaining populations of African wild dogs are scattered and thin. There are now fewer than 10,000 African wild dogs left in their natural habitat. Aside from their considerable natural adaptability, the one hope remaining for these amazing mammals is a strong conservation effort.