Socialising with Egyptian vultures

Socialising with Egyptian vultures

Look, that’s a vulture, an Egyptian Vulture,” an excited voice of a fellow birder. When I turned around and saw, it was indeed one. This happened last winter, during a bird visit to Hesaraghatta Lake (a manmade reservoir located 18 km to the north-west of Bangalore).

This lake is a great place for winter migrant birds. What we saw there was a pair roosting on a grass - clearing. There was no animal carcass or any other food around. However, the birds seemed to be in a close social gathering.

Social birds

Generally, these species are found in good concentration around towns, where there is regular supply of unwanted food and where the vultures are very tame. Given that Egyptian Vulture is a solitary bird that will gather only for mating and the raising of young chicks, so quite obviously, this behaviour gathered much of our attention.

As per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus) is globally endangered. It has many other vulture species, declining as a breeder across its range, which extends from Central Europe and Asia to Africa.

The causes for its decline are varied, including (among other things) accidental and targeted poisoning, intoxication (they feed on carcasses that can be full of poison and lead) persecution, disturbance, decline of food availability, electrocution, and use of body parts for ‘traditional medicine’.

Conservation measures

Efforts are underway for the conservation of these vultures, which include determination of the wintering population in the area through roost and road counts, studying mortality factors in the area through surveys on electrocution, collision, poisoning and poaching as it is known that their low survival in the non-breeding areas occur during migration and wintering.

During our time spent watching them, we noticed their social interaction, the behaviour that has not been described before. The ‘pairs’ were mutually preening head and neck feathers and continued to do so for several minutes.

Slowly, there were a couple of black kites  also congregated around the vultures. However, the vultures seemed to ignore their presence and continued to preen each other.

One adult – the ‘submissive’ bird — laid on the ground, in a small pothole, with its wings outstretched, as though it was on egg incubation rounds. We were unable to tell the sex of the birds, but both were full adults. It is known that these birds don’t breed in Indian subcontinent, so we were quite confused with this behaviour as it seemed that they were in intrinsic courtship rituals.

Frequently, the two birds simply gazed around. Soon after, the dominant bird raised itself from the ground by flapping its wings, as if taking off.

There was another surprising behaviour as one of the birds picked up a small dried plant twig and started playing with it, and the other was trying to steal the twig from it. We were unsure whether this was a result of our intrusion, or a part of the ritual.
However, it was an interesting tryst — a  tryst with the Egyptian Vultures.

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