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.

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 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.

The Snow Leopard

 Asia, Endangered Species, Mammals, Mountains  Comments Off on The Snow Leopard
Nov 062009
photo provided courtesy of wwarby on Flickr Creative CommonsHomeCentral and South Asia
Habitat rocky crags to altitudes of 16,500 feet
Nicheambush predator
Favorite Foodsmall mammals
Lengthup to 8 feet, nose to tail tip
Weightup to 165 pounds
Threatshabitat loss, poaching, revenge killings

Icy wind. Bitter, bone-splinting cold. Air so thin, it leaves mammals wheezing. By all accounts, one of the least-forgiving regions on planet earth, The Himalayas. And within the highest peaks on earth lives a big cat so extraordinarily adapted to its surroundings, that it has come to dominate the food chain.

The snow leopard is one of the rarest big cats in the wild. Living like a gray curtain across the rocks where it lives, it’s seldom found, even when scientists are searching for it in earnest. A solitary hunter, it generally doesn’t want to be seen. That would be giving up its greatest strength.

The snow leopard’s hunting adaptations are many. Its spine is incredibly flexible, allowing it to extend its muscles further for faster running, and swing its body around obstacles for greater maneuverability. It also sports a long, broad tail that acts as a midair rudder. The snow leopard lives in very dangerous territory. There are many clusters of sharp rocks, slippery ledges, and sheer drops. The mountains of Central Asia do not smile on a mistake in timing or careless slip during a fevered dash for prey. Men barely make it up the Himalayas with advanced hiking gear. The snow leopard not only moves in these forbidding mountains. It runs full speed.

This cat actually prefers the most treacherous areas of the mountains, steppes, and forests of Asia because of the way it hunts prey. Using stealth as its best friend, it will sneak up on potential food. Its broad, furry paws not only allow it superb handling of the rocks in the chase that will be forthcoming. The soft hair muffles nearly all the sound of the snow leopard’s approach. And this tactic works quite well. Living up to 16,000 feet above sea level, these cats will take a wide variety of prey. From animals as small as birds up to giant, formidable opponents like the yak, the snow leopard’s list of hunting quarries is long and impressive.

Then comes the strike. When the snow leopard reaches striking distance, it will release powerful muscle tension in its legs and attempt to leap on the prey. It will do this from as far as 30 feet away with extraordinary jumps. If all goes according the plan, the animal being ambushed won’t realize it has been until it feel’s the cat’s claws in its back.

Snow leopards are solitary. This is because in the cold, rocky wastes of its habitat, other animals are scarce. To make the best of the limited hunting, each hunting-age snow leopard patrols a territory up to 40 square miles. However, when the mating season advances in the Himalayas, snow leopard will come together for a brief time in order to mate and hunt together for the new generation.

photo provided courtesy of don.carey on Flickr Creative CommonsAnd snow leopards do most of this under the cover of darkness, which is one reason why they’re so difficult to study. Unfortunately, there may not be much longer to study these animals. Their numbers have been cut steadily for years, and the few remaining snow leopards remain in remote areas. Difficult for both those who want to help, and those who want to harm these endangered marvels. So, the majestic gray hunters of the mountain peaks may hold on yet a bit longer for us to ponder their future.