Someone has to do the dirty work. But you’re drinking coffee, so I’ll try to keep it clean. Fortunately, Africa’s hooded vulture already does.
Dressing for dinner
That in part explains its mini-mohawk. When you’re shoving your head deep in your food to get to the good bits, you don’t want to mess up your ‘do, so either side of its face is featherless. And while it does have a habit of hanging around carcasses, rubbish dumps and slaughterhouses for an easy meal, this vulture seems to love bathing just as much – it’s been spotted spending hours by waterholes, and also sunbathing.
While the water obviously flushes away the muckier parts of its meals, it’s thought the heat and blazing sunlight agitate any horrible parasites that may have hitched a ride, making it easier for “hoodie” to pick them off while preening. So all things considered, it’s not a dirty bird at all. Not all cultures see it as a flying scruffbag of impending doom either, but even this can go both ways.
A survey of locals in Guinea-Bissau, on Africa’s Atlantic coast, found that vultures were considered harmless, helpful, and worthy of respect, either as creatures of God, symbols of a particular ethnic bloodline, or magical, so woe betide anyone who harms one.
On the other hand, some believed eating their meat would cure leprosy or even protect you from jail time. And it’s not the only part of Africa where vulture and culture don’t mix.
Who has a bone to pick with who?
In Saidu and Buij’s 2013 study of medicinal traders, 90% of vulture parts seized in Nigeria were from hoodies, and in areas of east and central Africa, the brains, plumage, head or fat are peddled as a cure for anything from rheumatism to bad gambling odds. The hoodie isn’t fazed by urban settlements, as per the above “hunting grounds”, especially as it gives them an edge over larger, more aggressive vulture species who avoid humans, but this of course means it’s more vulnerable to poaching. Even when it’s not the main target.
In bad taste
Strychnine poisoning aimed at lions and hyenas is bad enough, as the vultures cop it when going for the leftovers, but some elephant poachers, knowing that circling vultures would alert rangers to a kill, deliberately poison the carcass as well. All of the above, coupled with loss of habitat for nesting, and risk of bird flu from discarded chicken, might explain how it’s gone from Least Concern to Critically Endangered in just 12 years. A low reproductive rate probably doesn’t help either.
The hooded vulture pairs for life, and only has one chick at a time in a stick nest high up in the trees. It prefers a bit more privacy to other vulture species, forming fairly loose colonies, and dotes on its chick for 9 months or more. Instead of flaunting dinner by flying it home in its talons, the parent hoodie stores it in its “crop” in its throat, ready to regurgitate once it’s back from a hard day at the carcass.
So it pairs for life, takes care of its young, likes baths, sunbathing, hanging around urban areas and eating junk food. Not that different to a lot of us really, just for the hoodie, the latter is a bit more literal.
Latin: Necrosyrtes monachus
What? Endangered African vulture with a mini-mohawk
Where? Mostly sub-Saharan Africa, although also found in Morocco
How big? 1.5-1.6 metre / 5-5.4 ft wingspan, 0.6-0.7 metres / 2-2.3 feet long.
Endangered? Yes, it’s plummeted from Least Concern to Critically Endangered due to indiscriminate poisoning, loss of habitat, use for bushmeat and traditional medicine, and it’s also at risk of bird flu by munching on discarded chicken.
Probable motto: Hey, doing the dirty work doesn’t always make you dirty.
They look…interesting. Do they need my help at all?
Absolutely yes. This time it’s the vulture being harangued on all sides from the meat and medicine trades, habitat loss, poaching, poisoning and risk of bird flu.
The Hawk Conservancy Trust has also been monitoring this species with other organisations since 2016 here.
Finally, BirdLife International has a 10-year plan to save Africa’s vultures, so you can extend the love to the hoodie’s neighbours here.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Burrington, Kathryn. 2017. “Birds of The Gambia: hooded vulture“. The Gambia Experience.
Flach, Tim. 2017. Endangered. Abrams.
Henriques, Mohamed et al. 2018. “Not in wilderness: African vulture strongholds remain in areas with high human density“. PLOSOne https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0190594
“Hooded vulture“. No date. The Peregrine Fund.
Mullié, Win C. et al. 2017. “The decline of an urban hooded vulture Necrosyrtes monachus population in Dakar, Senegal, over 50 years“. Ostrich 88(2): 131-138.
“Necrosyrtes monachus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Featured image credit: “Hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus)” by Tom Meaker