Colorado Springs gets a lot of hail. Anyone who has lived here very long knows that hail is part of life. But in the 25 years we’ve called Colorado home, we’ve never seen a summer like this one. Three times in the past three months, the south end of town has been pummeled by huge hailstones— softball-sized cannonballs from the clouds that demolished anything in their path. Gardens, cars, roofs, windows—the damage is devastating.
Sadly, the most recent storm also injured dozens of people, some seriously enough to be hospitalized, and killed five animals at the renowned Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. Today’s memorial post is dedicated to Cape Vulture (aka Cape Griffon) Motswari, an ambassador for her species and for vultures worldwide.
Vultures are often maligned. We’re trained from childhood to consider them evil, dirty, nasty birds. Google “vulture cartoon” and see what pops up—they’re depicted as hunched over, menacing creatures. But think about it for a moment. Where would we be without vultures?
Vultures, and other animals that eat carrion, play an essential role in any ecosystem. Imagine if nothing ever came to clean up the mess that predators leave behind. What about the flattened creatures that decorate our roads?
But an even more essential role is that of toxic waste clean-up worker. Even other scavengers (such as dogs and hyenas) know better than to eat animals felled by disease. Vultures, however, have extremely corrosive stomach acid that can render harmless the most deadly of diseases, including anthrax, botulism, rabies, and cholera. Imagine the epidemics that would result, among animals and humans, if vultures weren’t on the job!
While their food may be disgusting, vultures are actually rather clean birds. Having a naked head means that bits of food won’t get stuck in their feathers, and they disinfect their legs after dinner (yes, by defecating on them, but hey, it works).
Unfortunately, vulture species worldwide are in serious decline, primarily due to human activity. Poisoned carcasses aimed at killing jackals, rats, and other scavengers also kill vultures, sometimes in huge numbers. The California Condor nearly went extinct, and is still severely endangered, due to lead poisoning from bullets in piles of offal left behind by hunters field-dressing their take. And in India, more than 95% of the resident vultures died off between 1990 and the early 2000s, due to the use of a veterinary drug used in cattle that proved to be highly toxic to the birds. Thankfully, that drug is now banned, and the population has stabilized, and may be slowly recovering.
Vultures typically dine in large numbers. This keeps other hopeful scavengers at bay. But when there aren’t enough vultures around to scare off the competition, these other scavengers can move in to claim the meal, blocking the birds from their only food source and further endangering the species. When carrion isn’t available, other scavengers turn to predation, but this isn’t an option for most vulture species, which prefer their meals very dead. As vulture populations decline, the numbers of other scavengers increase. And that’s bad for us humans.
Vultures rarely come into close contact with people. However, other scavengers, such as dogs and rats, live among us. They then act as a bridge between diseased wildlife and humans. The University of Utah news reports:
… following the decline of vultures, India experienced a strong uptick in feral dogs—by an estimated seven million. The increase in dogs, potentially feeding on disease-ridden carcasses, is thought to have at least partially caused the rabies outbreak that was estimated to have killed 48,000 people from 1992-2006 in India—deaths that may have been avoided if not for the disappearance of vultures.
Motswari’s role at the zoo was to represent her species, and all vultures, educating the public about the essential role vultures play in ecosystems and in human health, and bringing awareness of their endangered status. She will be sorely missed.
Photos, from top: Cape Griffon Vulture, Black Vulture, Lappet-faced Vulture, Cape Griffon Vulture.
Answer to last week’s quiz: White-winged Dove