The first Saturday in September each year is International Vulture Awareness Day! Vultures are an ecologically vital group of birds that face a variety of threats, and populations of many species are under pressure with some facing extinction.

The goal of this effort is to promote the importance and conservation of vultures to a wider audience and highlight the important work being carried out by the world’s vulture conservationists — something we pride ourselves in here at the Phoenix Zoo.

Three different species of vultures are found in North America, and all three can be seen on the Arizona Trail at the Zoo.

Black vultures and turkey vultures are both quite common, while California condors are listed as endangered in the U.S. and critically endangered by the IUCN. The Arizona Center for Nature Conservation (ACNC) is proud to help support condor conservation in the wild.  Since 2012, we’ve provided over $20,000 in direct support to California condor field conservation efforts.

We have provided four grants to the California Condor Nest Guarding Program, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Santa Barbara Zoo at Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, funding remote-sensing camera support and equipment support for program staff and volunteers, including binoculars sized appropriately for female staff and volunteers for whom “standard issue” binoculars are often ill-fitting and difficult to adjust properly.

We’ve also helped The Peregrine Fund purchase field blood lead analyzer equipment for use in Arizona and Utah that allows field biologists to determine quickly which free-flying condors need treatment for lead poisoning. In addition, a contribution from the ACNC and the Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation is helping The Peregrine Fund refurbish telemetry equipment necessary to track condors released in Arizona.

Beginning right after Labor Day, join Zoo education staff for California condor “Creature Feature” interpretive talks at the exhibit three times per week, often coinciding with times when behavioral enrichment in the condor exhibit particularly encourages displays of natural behaviors such as fishing.

Yes, watching huge birds fish is as cool as it sounds!

For more information about California condor recovery efforts in Arizona and beyond, click here and here. To help the Phoenix Zoo continue to support condor conservation and more, click here.

Vultures 101

  • There are 23 species of vultures – 14 of them are threatened or endangered due to factors like poisoning, vehicle collisions and electrocution from power lines.
  • There are seven species of new world vultures. New world vultures are more closely related to storks.
  • There are 16 species of old world vultures. Old world vultures are more closely related to hawks and eagles.
  • When you look at new world vultures, you can see through their nares (nostrils). You can’t see through those of old world vultures.
  • Vultures are scavengers. They eat carrion (already-dead animals). Most vultures don’t have the weapons that allow them to kill, unless it’s small, weak and helpless. Their weapon is patience.
  • Vultures’ digestive acid is 0-0.5ph – if they swallow it, they can digest it, including bones and fur, as well as disease-causing organisms like botulism and anthrax.
  • Vulture’s stomach acid is almost 1000 times more acidic than humans.
  • The bearded vulture, who lives in Europe and Africa, specializes in digesting bones. They can dissolve vertebrae in two hours, and have been seen with one end of a limb bone sticking out of their mouths as the other end starts digesting.
  • The palm nut vulture hangs upside down from palm nut clusters to eat the fruit. They’ve started using this behavior to hang from and eat carcasses some safari lodges put up to attract jaguars.
  • The Egyptian vulture uses rocks to break open ostrich eggs.
  • Vultures have bare heads and necks to keep clean when eating at a carcass. Skin is easier to clean than feathers. Vulture species that don’t have naked heads don’t eat until the carcass is mostly gone, or eat things like palm fruits.
  • Vultures stand with their wings spread out to warm up in the sun and to dry off after a rainstorm. Heat can also kill parasites hiding in their feathers.
  • We know hot air rises. As the Earth warms, some areas warm faster than others and the air rises from these areas in a column called thermals. Vultures may have to fly for hours to find food, and they have broad, square wings perfect for soaring which saves energy. They wait until these thermals form, and then use them to get higher in the sky. They move in circles to make sure they stay inside the column, moving from one to another across the landscape. A group of vultures circling a thermal together is called a kettle.
  • Diclofenac is a cheap, common NSAID drug given often given to cattle. It is lethal to vultures if they eat the carcass of a cow that has been treated with it. Many countries are trying to ban its use to save their vultures.
  • Lead ammunition fragments into pieces that can be microscopically small. When animals, including vultures, eat from discarded gut piles, or injured animals the hunter couldn’t find, they get lead poisoning and will die without veterinary assistance.
  • Flying vultures can see to the sides easier than in front of them, making it easier to hit power lines.
  • Game wardens use circling vultures to locate poached animals and hopefully poachers. Poachers have started poisoning animals to kill the vultures. Farmers sometimes poison a cow that has been killed by a large predator like a lion to try and keep the rest of their livestock safe. One poisoned animal can kill hundreds of vultures, as well as many predators.
  • Turkey vultures smell for one of the first chemicals a dead body gives off: ethyl mercaptan. Gas companies add ethyl mercaptan to their gas, and watch for circling vultures to locate leaks in the pipelines.
  • Turkey Vultures have such a good sense of smell; they can locate a carcass buried under a large pile of leaves beneath a full forest canopy.
  • Old world vultures have no known sense of smell; they find food by sight. 
  • During times of war, vultures can be seen following the armies and helping to clean up the battle field.
  • Ruppell’s griffon vultures have the highest recorded flight of a bird. They have been seen by a plane at 36,000 feet in the air.    
  • Cape griffon vultures started dying out in areas of southern Africa that have lost all their larger predators. When they eat, these predators create small bone chips. The vultures take these chips and feed them to their chicks, which provides them with the calcium they need to grow strong bones. Without them, their bones break when they’re flapping their wings to try and fly. Authorities have created stations where people hammer bones into chips for the vultures.