White-Backed Vulture

Gyps africanus
African White-backed vulture
The White-backed vulture, an Old World vulture, is the most common large vulture in Africa and is an accomplished scavenger that eats the carcasses of large animals. Hundreds of these vultures gather to feed on large dead animals. They gorge themselves so much they cannot fly, and then rest with wings spread and their backs facing the sun.
270,000

population size

19 yrs

Life span

48 km/h

Top Speed

4-7 kg

Weight

78-98 cm

Length

1.9-2.3 m

wingspan

Disrtibution

These vultures live in Africa, south of the Sahara, and in much of Namibia and South Africa, and the equatorial forests in West Africa. They are common in wooded areas where large grazing mammals are found. They are sometimes found along streams.

Habits and lifestyle

White-backed vultures are highly social and diurnal. It is gregarious in its feeding habits, and large numbers of them gather when food is abundant. Often, as many as 100 White-backed vultures may gather near a dead animal. With so many competitors for food, fights happen. They are very tame birds, and will venture into towns, looking for food. They are adapted for feeding on soft tissue, and are not able to tear open large carcasses that have thick skin. They search for food by soaring high in the air, using their keen eyesight. Once an individual sees a freshly killed animal, it will wheel in the sky as a signal to other vultures to fly down and eat. After gorging on food, a vulture may bathe at a favorite site with other species, or rest with its wings spread and back to the sun.

group name

venue, kettle, wake

Diet and nutrition

White-backed vultures are carnivores and scavengers, they eat mainly carcasses and bone fragments.

Mating habits

White-backed vultures are monogamous breeders and pairs stay together for life. They breed in the dry season, nesting with 2 to 13 birds in a loose colony. They make their nest at the top of a tall tree within their territory, often beside a stream. The nest is a small one for the size of this large vulture, and is a platform made from sticks, the interior lined with green leaves and grass. A single egg is laid and incubation is by both parents, for about 56 days. The parents will then take part in feeding and caring for the chick until it fledges and leaves the nest after about 4 months.

Mating behavior

Reproduction season

during the dry season

Incubation period

56 days

Independent age

4 months
chick

baby name

1 egg

Clutch size

Population

Population Trend

Population status

ne
dd
lc
nt
vu
en
cr
ew
ex

Population threats

The main threats to the White-backed vulture are: the conversion and loss of their habitat for agriculture, less available carrion due to declining wild ungulate populations, being hunted for traditional medicine use, illegal capture for the live trade, drowning in farm reservoirs, electrocution from electricity pylons, persecution and poisoning.

Population number

According to the IUCN Red List, this species is the most widespread and common vulture in Africa, and the total population size of the White-backed vulture is 270,000 individuals. Currently this species is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) and its numbers today are decreasing.

Ecological niche

White-backed vultures have a very important role in the ecosystem. By removing animal remains, these scavengers clean up the environment, helping to prevent diseases from spreading.

Fun facts for kids

  1. Some people believe that vultures can predict everything from football scores to winning lottery numbers.
  2. New World vultures hunt using smell, detecting a decaying carcass by the gas Mercaptan, which is given off when decay begins.
  3. Old World vultures belong to the same family as hawks and eagles, which cannot smell their food, hunting by sight only.
  4. A vulture’s ears cannot be seen because they are covered by a fine skin to stop food from getting in while the bird is eating.
  5. 100 or so African White-backed vultures can rip all the flesh off a 100-pound carcass in about three minutes.
  6. Food poisoning does not affect a vulture because its stomach acids are very acidic, with a pH of nearly zero. These acids prevent the spread of disease.
  7. A "committee", "venue" or "volt" is the name for a group of vultures. In flight they are called a "kettle" and a group feeding at a carcass, is called a "wake".
  8. To keep cool, vultures will urinate on their feet and legs. This also kills parasites and bacteria and helps keep the birds healthy.
  9. Vultures are related more closely to storks than any other species of bird of prey.