Success in Scavenging

Posted March 3, 2022 by Jillian Petrina
Ruppell’s vulture

Today we celebrate World Wildlife Day! This year, the focus of this day is the recovery of key species for ecosystem restoration. Key species perform specific functions in their ecosystem, helping hold it together with their large impact. You might have heard the saying ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’. This green motto doesn’t just apply to humans. In the wild, we find that this slogan comes to life in a unique way with nature’s recyclers – the scavengers and decomposers. So, in honor of World Wildlife Day, this post will focus on a key species in a majority of the world’s habitats, one of nature’s most helpful clean-up crews, the vulture.

Andean condor

The Zoo is home to four different species representing both vulture families, Accipitridae (Old World vultures) and Cathartidae (New World vultures). Old World vultures include16 species of vulture and are represented at our Zoo by the lappet-faced vulture and the Ruppel’s vulture. New World vultures include five vultures and two condor species and are represented by the Andean condor and black vultures at our Zoo. 

Covered with black feathers, a bare black head, and white wing tips; black vultures soar through the skies of eastern North America, Central America, and South America. With their broad wings and a short tail, this scavenger is commonly confused with its cousin, the turkey vulture. As social birds, they are uniquely loyal to their families; sharing food with relatives and their young. These birds are known for picking apart carcasses and recycling dead materials back into the ecosystem. Black vultures will follow turkey vultures to animal remains, demonstrating their uncommonly accute sense of smell (most birds have little to no sense of smell). In Ohio, we can search the sky to find these birds soaring and circling above their next meal. By feeding on dead animals, they play a vital role in the ecosystem by cleaning up unwanted debris, recycling nutrients back into the soil, and reducing diseases that could spread from carcasses. Without nature’s clean-up crew, the world would be a smelly and dirty place.

“Boris” the Black Vulture

Here at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, our Bird Encounter program is home to two black vultures, Boris and Bernard. Although in the wild black vultures have an average lifespan of around 25 years old, in human care they can live to be even older. Boris, our older black vulture is evidence of this at 30 years old. Bernard, our other black vulture is still young at only five years of age. These birds are animal ambassadors for the Cincinnati Zoo, introducing people to their species and educating them on the challenges they face and opportunities to support their wild counterparts.  Although black vultures are listed by IUCN as Least Concern there are several similar species of vultures such as the white-backed vulture, Indian vulture, and hooded vulture that are currently listed at critically endangered.

One of the ways the Cincinnati Zoo contributes to the conservation of vultures is through Behind the Scenes visits to Fiona and Hippo Cove. While this may seem like an odd pairing, Old World vultures share habitat with Nile hippos in the wild and, by pairing hippo encounters with vulture conservation, the Zoo ensures that VulPro, a leading vulture conservation organization, can take measures to protect these birds so they can perform the key ecosystem services necessary to help their shared habitat. You can show your support for these birds and other wildlife by visiting the Ameritas Wings of Wonder Bird Experience at the Zoo and by taking part in a Behind-the-Scenes Hippo Tour, You can also be a key species in your environment, like the vulture, this World Wildlife Day by thinking like black vultures. Reducing waste by using reusable water bottles, recirculating materials into the environment by composting your leftover food, and recycling nutrients to provide for and restore the ecosystem. When we all do our part to be good stewards of nature, we can make every day World Wildlife Day.