Photo of the Month: Cape Vulture

By Megan Runquist Holmstedt

Cape vulture with chick; PHOTO CREDIT: Jamie Pham

The Cape vulture is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The species’s range and population are declining due to human-induced threats such as poisonings, power line collisions/electrocutions, veterinary and agricultural practices (poisoning by medicines used to treat livestock that are fatal to vultures), and decreasing food availability. There are an estimated 6,700 wild individuals left.

Formerly widespread and common throughout southern Africa, this vulture is now limited to the region from southern Zimbabwe and eastern Botswana south to Cape Provence, except the Kalahari Desert.  It typically roosts and nests on high cliffs.

Like all scavengers, this vulture eats carrion.  It plays a critical role in the ecosystem by rapidly consuming the bacteria-riddled bodies of dead animals, which would otherwise spread diseases like rabies, bubonic plague, tuberculosis, anthrax, and botulism.

The wingspan of these majestic birds can reach up to 8.5 feet in length, and adults can weigh up to 24 pounds (by comparison, a bald eagle weighs up to 14 pounds). The Cape vulture’s broad wings are designed for soaring on thermal updrafts as it scans the ground below for food using its excellent eyesight. The bird may fly for many miles over open country in search of a meal.

The Los Angeles Zoo has a long and successful history with these charismatic vultures. The Zoo exhibited a pair for many years, and in 1996, staff established the Zoo’s current breeding colony of the vulnerable birds. Between 1996 and 2013, 18 chicks hatched at the Zoo.

Though the Zoo’s Cape vultures are technically off exhibit, they can be glimpsed in their large flight cage behind Rainforest of the Americas near the jaguar habitat.