Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Greater Yellow-headed Vulture

The Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes melambrotus) was thought to be the same species as the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) until 1964, when the two species were distinguished from one another. 
A Greater Yellow-headed Vulture in flight (photo: the wikipedia files)
As you may guess, the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture has a yellow head.  Like many other New World Vultures (vultures from North and South America), its feathers are mostly black except for the underparts of the wings, which are only slightly lighter.  They live in the lowland forests of the Amazon River Basin.  Therefore, they have earned the nickname of the "Forest Vulture". 
The range of the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (from the wikipedia files)
Like the Turkey Vulture, the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture has a very keen sense of smell.  It can easily find the carcass of a dead opossum, sloth, or primate.  It is a good thing that they eat these carcasses too.  Decomposing tissue is very susceptible to disease, and these vultures have acids in their stomachs that are powerful enough to kill any disease.  So while they eat, they are also helping rid their habitat of disease.  However, they can't just eat any old flesh laying out in the forest.  Their beak isn’t very powerful so they actually have to wait for the King Vulture, a large beautiful vulture found in the same area, to come and rip open the animal carcass with their beak.  But once the King Vulture has had its fill, the other vultures can feast. 
New World Vultures actually do not have a syrinx, which means it is incapable of singing songs that we often associate with birds.  Because of this, the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture can only make small hisses and grunts. 
Interestingly enough, no nesting site has ever been found for these beautiful birds.  Ornithologists think that they probably are monogamous and use caves or nooks in cliffs to lay their eggs.  These vultures are very abundant in their habitat, but are threatened by advancing deforestation in South America.
 One thing we can all do to help these wonderful animals is to recycle.  Recycling helps reduce deforestation, not just with paper, but with aluminum too.  That’s because most of the raw aluminum, which we use to turn into soda cans, comes from mines in the rainforests of South America.
World Bird Sanctuary does not have a Yellow-headed Vulture, but we do have several other new world vultures on display—notably the Turkey Vulture and an Andean Condor named Dorothy.  We also have a Black Vulture and a King Vulture who are often featured in our zoo shows and sometimes our special events programs.  Be sure to look for these unique birds the next time you visit the World Bird Sanctuary. 
Submitted by Mike Cerutti, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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