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Ruppell's Griffon Vulture Facts
Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture/ Gyps rueppellii
Nature’s Ghastly Gourmet OR Mother Nature’s Sanitizer? We all know how mothers are about being clean and Mother Nature is no exception. As with all creatures, vultures have a role to play in nature. The not infrequent sight of a group of griffons feeding on the carcass of a sheep or a calf, has repeatedly led to the conclusion that these birds are predators, when in fact they are dedicated scavengers performing the vital function of removing (recycling) rotting carcasses. In fact, they can eat rotting flesh containing anthrax, botulism, and cholera bacteria, which are destroyed in the stomach.
Contrary to popular opinion, vultures are not reliant on the left-overs of predator kills, although they will frequently visit the site of a kill and will certainly take food if it is available. In reality, the bulk of vulture food comes from mortalities such as old age, diseased or broken limbed-animals and still-born young. Up to 100, 000 wildebeest die each year in the Serengeti-Mara so it is easy to see that vultures would survive well enough without lions.
When vultures are feeding together at a carcass, cooperation is perhaps the last word that might come to mind, as they hiss and stomp on each other to try a get a mouthful of flesh, but, interestingly enough, they employ different foraging techniques and feeding habits. One method is to gobble down chunks of flesh as quickly as possible. Griffons can fill their crop with more than 3 pounds of meat in four to five minutes. A good feed will last them at least four days before the call of an empty crop sends it out again. Some are considered ‘the early bird’ and are the first to locate carrion. Others have a preference for parts that can’t be reached until after the body is dismembered by the flock.
The Griffon vultures found in Africa - Ruppell's Griffon (Gyps rueppellii), Cape Griffon (Gyps coprotheres) and the African White-backed Griffon (Gyps africanus) - are very closely related to each other and interbreeding between Ruppell's Griffon and the Cape Griffon has been recorded in South Africa. Ruppell’s Griffon ranges across much of central Africa, including Ethiopia, the Sudan, Tanzania and Guinea with one of the largest concentrations of more than 1, 000 pairs of Ruppell’s Griffon around the Gol Escarpment in East Africa (the large concentration of big game near the Serengeti plain provides carcasses for sustenance).
The Ruppell's Vulture is a large vulture and, as with the other Griffons, has a long naked neck and smallish head, allowing them to delve deep inside animal carcasses. In fact, the characteristic featherless head allows the bird to feed without getting too ‘messy’. Think about it—a feathered head would become spattered with blood and other fluids, and thus be difficult to keep clean.
Adults are close to a 3 feet in length, with a wingspan of around 8.5 feet, and a weight of 15-20 pounds. Both sexes are alike: mottled brown or black overall with a whitish-brown underbelly and thin, dirty-white fluff covering the head and neck. The base of the neck has a white collar, the eye is yellow or amber, and the crop patch is a deep chocolate brown. Ruppell's vultures have an especially powerful bill and, after the most attractive soft parts of a carcass have been consumed, they will continue with the hide, and even the bones, gorging themselves until they can barely fly. They have backward-facing splines on the tongue to help remove meat from bone.
Ruppell's Vultures are highly social, roosting, nesting, and gathering to feed in large flocks. Silent as a rule, they become vocal at the nest and when at a carcass, squealing a great deal. The Ruppell’s vultures pair up for life, which may be forty or fifty years. Courting behavior consists of pairs circling close together near the cliffs. The pairs perch together for long periods of time and colonies of up to 1, 000 breeding pairs are formed. They make large nests of sticks lined with grass and leaves. The females will often steal the sticks from other nests and the males arrange them. Depending upon its location, the site may be used year after year or never again. Both parents share in incubating, brooding and feeding the chicks. Just a single egg is laid each year and the youngster is only just gaining independence when the next breeding cycle begins. Incubation period is 55 days and fledging is 12 weeks.
Ruppell's Griffon is the highest flying bird on record, once spotted at an altitude of over 37, 000 feet in the skies of West Africa. From a standing start the Ruppell’s vulture can fly over three miles in six minutes. They can cruise at over 22 mph, and will fly as far as 90 miles from a nest site to find food. When thermal currents start to develop enough lift, about two hours after sunrise, Ruppell's vultures leave the roost and begin to patrol over the plains, using their exceptionally keen eyesight to find large animal carcasses, or carnivores which have made a kill. The Ruppell’s vulture often stays in the air for six to seven hours a day.