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On Vultures


10 Sep

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Like a lot of pilots, I have a real fascination with vultures and in particular the paradox they seem to embody. Large Quasimodo-esque creatures, ill-suited to movement of any kind on the ground, transform themselves into mesmerizingly adept pilots once airborne. Idly watching vultures suspended in the skies above any of Africa’s National parks it’s easy to believe their lifestyle is as effortless as it looks. The truth is a bit more complicated. Every movement has its cost, and with no ability to hunt, and no sense of smell (arguably an advantage if you live off dead animals) the choices of where to find the next meal are beyond their own control. So for a vulture, life is a little like constantly driving with the “empty tank” light on, and just hoping to find a petrol station round the next corner… But it’s also easy to look the wrong way down the evolutionary periscope and forget that, rather than having to wrestle with a set of problems, vultures and their lifestyle in themselves represent a solution. Natural Selection’s answer to the question ”right then, how are we going to clear up all this dead stuff?” The solution for vultures is directly linked with their distribution. For a place to be suitable for vultures there must be two things: firstly enough food, but perhaps more importantly, enough thermals or updrafts for them to be able to fly massive distances without flapping. At all. This mastery of free flight is critical, and the vulture’s dependency on it is probably the main reason we don’t have colonies of griffon vultures, instead of seagulls, living off the chips and curry in Leicester Square. This same dependency on free flight also explains why you can expect to see no vultures in the sky before about 9:00 in the morning, and why on overcast days, tree-bound vultures, with no prospect of getting airborne, look even more miserable than usual. There also seems to be a rather neat little equation relating to size – on one level, the bigger the bird, the more likely it is to get a share of what ever delight forms breakfast that day. But there is another catch which works the other way. The small vultures are much more agile, less expensive to operate than their 747-scaled cousins and so can afford to hang around the edges of a kill when the lions are still there. They’re nimble enough to grab the odd scrap and flap out of the way. It’s always interesting looking at these clever little niches, but it’s also too easy to present nature as a set of neatly functioning processes, where each species performs it’s role and neatly dovetails into that of the next, like some elegant relay race. So it’s good to get the odd reminder that occasionally the baton gets dropped. Like the day when I found the dead vulture that had asphyxiated with it’s head up a dead wildebeest’s bottom (I may have mentioned this before…). A master of free flight it may have been, but it was no match for a wildebeest’s bottom.