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Birds of the Bush: Part 1

It's that time of year again. The rains have just started, relieving a harsh summer's drought, and with them comes the arrival of an abundance of birdlife. This series of blogs pays homage to some of our weird and wonderful fluffy friends out there. Some of them you might recognise, others you might not.


Birds have been an obsession of mine ever since I read 'The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs', which irrefutably argues that birds are indeed dinosaurs. It remains a mystery what triggered the evolutionary transition of fast-running, ground-dwelling, two-legged squirrel-looking-things into small, winged, flying birds. What is not a mystery, however, is that our lives and our planet are significantly richer for their existence.


We may no longer have baby T. rexes peppered with fluffy feathers (yes, that's a real thing), but in their 160-million year history, birds have evolved into something else quite extraordinary. They provide unfathomable ecological services (thank you vultures), endless entertainment (night-time, day-time, anyone?), and undeniable attraction (carmine bee-eaters and lilac breasted rollers, that crown is yours). Some fly (hi peregrines), some don't (hey ostriches), but all are equally epic and all need our support.


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We begin this blog series with the most underrated and underappreciated of the birds of the bush - the scavengers. Botswana's five species of vultures share the same laser vision, curved beaks, sharp talons, and predilection for carrion. For centuries, these unsavoury eating habits have left them riddled with superstitions of death and deceit. With their bald, withered heads and feathered ruffs, their association with the grim-reaper might be somewhat understandable. But underneath this arguably unattractive exterior, these unique birds are highly social animals, proud parents, remarkably hygienic, and, as the eco-janitors of the bush, absolutely essential to our well-being. Inside their stomachs, acid and bacteria are working overtime to kill any diseases that might be lurking in a putrid carcass. From anthrax to botulism, rabies to cholera, these unsung heroes stop the spread of these lethal ailments in their tracks.


Vultures use thermals to soar high into the sky. It's a big risk to land - if it's not hot enough they struggle to take off again and can be stranded for hours hopping hopelessly around a carcass. NHFU/Hannah Gormley.


Soaring on thermals hundreds of metres above, vultures search for their prey using their impeccable eye-sight to spot carcasses or other scavengers. On arrival, a 'wake' of vultures can strip a carcass clean within minutes. Their beaks tear through flesh and grizzle like butter, their bald heads can reach deep inside cavities without trapping bacteria under any feathers, and an internal storage 'crop' can house up to 1.4kg of undigested food. Not only do vultures feed socially, but they nest socially too. Right now, huge colonial nests of the White-backed vultures should be lining the Delta's iconic Mokolwane palms. In them should lie one egg that should be incubated for over two months by two doting parents and cared for until independence. However, across Africa, where 70% of carrion is cleared by vultures, their populations are plummeting. In order to imagine a world without them, we need only to look to India. Between 1992-2007, South Asia's vulture populations crashed by 97% thanks to accidental poisoning from livestock medicine. Rotting corpses contaminated water sources and a surge in rabies cost the economy approximately $34 billion. So, while they may not have the good-looks of a panda, their disappearance is just as devastating.


A 'wake' of vultures can strip a carcass clean within minutes, but they're not brave to fight off bigger scavengers. They use nearby trees to perch and wait patiently for their turn. NHFU/Hannah Gormley.


The biggest threat to vultures is, ironically, elephant poaching and 'lion killing' pesticides and, thanks to their eating habits, a single contaminated carcass can kill the lot. Poachers will often intentionally lace their victims with poison to prevent these eager-eyed detectives from spotting it too quickly after the crime and giving away their location to rangers and lions are killed in response to, or anticipation of, stealing livestock. It's a tragic consequence for a bird that's only doing what it evolved to do. The suspicions surrounding vultures also make them a prime target for the traditional medicine market. Their talons supposedly treat fever, their eyes 'see' into the future, and their brains are ground into snuff for magical powers. When you add electric cables, wind turbines, and urbanisation to the mix, things start looking pretty bleak for our vultures. In total, most of their populations have crashed by 80% over the last 30-years, But there is still hope.


The impact of one poisoned carcass. FACEBOOK/BWGovernment.


In Asia, campaign groups successfully got the poison responsible for the population crash banned. In Europe, reintroductions, new regulations, and work with farmers to leave out safe livestock-carcasses means 3 out of 4 species are actually increasing. In Africa, all states where vultures occur have agreed to a 'Multi-Species Action Plan' over the next-12 years and huge swathes of lands are being designated 'vulture safe zones', where anti-poisoning measures, education, and habitat restoration is in place. Organisations like the Peregrine Fund are working around the clock to train thousands of individuals in poisoning intervention, decontamination, sample collections, and building predator-proof corrals to keep wild animals away from livestock. Their work in the Masai Mara has already reduced poisoning by 50%. The VulPro Rehabilitation Centre is nursing sick vultures back to health and major tourist landmarks, like the Victoria Falls Hotel, are launching educative initiatives and providing vultures with safe meals to raise their profile. Even communities are getting involved in citizen science programmes, like the Africa Raptor Databank which tracks vulture flight paths to prevent new wind farms from being built along their favourite routes.


A welcome sight. NHFU/Hannah Gormley.


At the very least, I hope this blog has opened your eyes to how important (and awesome) vultures are and that, in turn, you'll join their army of defenders, since the first step towards saving the vulture is simply to make people like them. At most, I hope it might encourage you to get involved in citizen science projects, call in a tagged vulture if you see one, or support the conservation agencies working around the clock to save them on your behalf. If I still haven't persuaded you on vultures, then do it for the other silent scavenger victims. The magnificent, if somewhat stumpy, Bataleur Eagles, so named after the French for 'tight-rope walker' whose face and feet change colour much like a mood ring, or the endlessly entertainming Marabou Storks (that are even more startling than vultures in the looks department), or the Okavango's iconic fish eagle. The fate of all the birds of the bush lies in our hands.


Blog written by Hannah Gormley