South Africa boasts nine different species of vultures ranging from the huge Lappet-faced down to the tiny, by vulture standards, Hooded and Palm-nut Vultures.
As a rule vultures are large birds with strong hooked bills and very weak feet. Having weak feet is a good indication that they do not kill their own prey as is the case with raptors. The majority of our vultures are carrion feeders with the Palm-nut Vulture being the exception. All vultures are excellent at soaring on thermals, are very clean birds, bathing daily in rivers and streams and generally silent except at nests sites and when feeding.
White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus
A common resident often confused with the Cape Vulture as its white back is often not visible. One of the key identification features is the dark eye as opposed to the honey coloured eye of the Cape Vulture. White-backed Vultures also roost and nest in trees and is truly a bushveld vulture.
Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos
South Africa’s’ largest vulture and a fairly common resident. It is a huge bird with a massive bill. It is usually found in pairs in the bushveld and due to its size this vulture dominates over all others at a food source.
Cape Griffon Vulture Gyps coprotheres
This is a common endemic resident larger than the White-backed Vulture. Cape Vultures breed on cliffs (May-October) in colonies varying from a dozen birds up to hundreds of birds.
White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis
Uncommon resident usually seen in pairs at carcasses. It is a large bird with a white head , neck and under parts.
Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus
Uncommon, localized resident found in the Drakensburg and Maluti mountains of the south-east. The Bearded Vulture is different to the other vultures with its loosely feathered head and legs and a ‘beard’ which is visible in both adult and immature birds.
Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus
This is a fairly common yet localized resident with a small slender bill which it uses to glean meat from in-between ribs and other bones thus fairly well accepted at carcasses by other vultures as it poses no threat or competition. It is generally found at carcasses where mammal predators are found.
Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus
A rare visitor to the region. It has a fully feathered head and a wedge or diamond shaped tail visible in flight. Most often seen singly or occasionally in pairs in nature reserves or scavenging in rural areas.
Palm-nut Vulture Gypohierax angolensis
The name was derived from its habit of using oil palms to feed on and to breed in. It is frequently found foraging along the beach and pans and spends long periods perching. Unlike the other vultures it flies at any time regardless of thermals.
Ruppell’s Vulture Gyps rueppellii
A very rare or vagrant bird in this region. Rüppell’s Vulture is considered to be the highest-flying bird, with confirmed evidence of a flight at an altitude of 11,000 meters (36,100 ft) above.
Ulrich Oberprieler and Burger Cillie, RAPTOR IDENTIFICATION GUIDE for Southern Africa; Rollerbird Press, Parklands, 2002.
Kenneth Newman; Newman’s BIRDS of southern Africa, Struik Publishers (PTY) Ltd, 2000
Article and photos by: Nigel Anderson
Guide at African Insight