In a vulture beauty pageant, the undisputed winner would surely be the Bearded Vulture.
Words by Andrea Abbott. Pictures: Supplied.
Handsome, stately in its bearing, and richly coloured, this critically endangered bird is in a class of its own. Here are some characteristics that make this bird unique among vultures:
1. The Bearded Vulture is so named for it really does have a beard. It’s made of tactile, hair-like, shaggy feathers that can be likened to a cat’s whiskers. They allow the bird to feel what’s underneath while sitting on top of a carcass to feed but unable to see beneath itself.
2. The red sclera is iconic and is seen only in a few other species like some parrots.
3. The Bearded Vulture is the only bird that lives exclusively on a diet of bones that it rips off carcasses. Bones that are too big to swallow are carried into the air then dropped onto rocks – ossuaries ̶ to shatter. Some individuals have favourite ossuaries they use regularly. A bone might be dropped many times until it’s the right size. This makes food preparation an immensely labour and energy intensive exercise.
4. The rufous colouring of the bird’s chest, tummy, neck and legs is a famous feature and most guidebooks depict the Bearded Vulture in that guise. However, the feathers are naturally white but become stained with ferrous oxide when the birds take mud baths. The behaviour isn’t fully understood. Theories range from dominance behaviour to parasite control. It could even be purely cosmetic – compare the mud packs humans apply! – or for camouflage. Whatever the reason though, according to Shannon Hoffman, CEO of The African Bird of Prey Sanctuary in KZN, the drive to take a mud bath is as strong as the drive to feed.
5. The black face mask is another characteristic of the species and, unlike other masked birds, is visible even in tiny chicks.
So that others might fly
Captured at a young age and confined to a cramped cage at a sangoma’s homestead in Lesotho, Leseli the Bearded Vulture faced an uncertain future. But Fortune favoured her when an observant hiker reported her plight to conservation authorities. Bearded Vultures are protected in both Lesotho and South Africa, and in due course, Leseli was confiscated and taken to the Raptor Rescue Rehabilitation facility at the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary. Sadly, Leseli proved unable to fly and could therefore never be released. And so she was housed in a big, purpose-built enclosure fitted with an artificial cliff wall that provides a semblance of her natural environment. Leseli was, for a time, the only Bearded Vulture in legal captivity in Southern Africa but that changed with the advent of the Bred 4 the Wild project. The project lets her see and mingle with others of her kind at last (imprinted on humans, however, she probably thinks she is a human). It also has given her life new purpose, as it’s hoped she will breed. That aside, she has become pivotal to the project by providing the proper role model for chicks growing up in secure pothole nests built into the cliff wall. They get to see a real Bearded Vulture and, once they’re old enough, they’re given access to Leseli’s enclosure. “She makes the project possible,” says project manager, Shannon Hoffman.