Sunday, September 02, 2007

And the Vultures Circle

Well, it’s high time for another bird post, and I have just the animal for it. It was mentioned in the Waldrapp Ibis post as another bird seen at the Cleveland Zoo, and I even linked to a picture of it. This picture, in fact:

Image by Me
Image by me

The Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus) is also known as the Monk Vulture or Eurasian Black Vulture. They’re found in mountainous areas all the way from Spain to the Himalayas. Due to their high lifestyle, they’ve developed a special hemoglobin molecule to help take in oxygen at altitudes where we would be sucking on air tanks. This vulture has even been spotted 23,000 feet up Mount Everest; that’s about 80 percent up to the summit. The tree line would have been about 8,600 feet down.

With an 8-foot wingspan, the Cinereous Vulture is the world’s largest “falconiforme,” the group that contains the true birds of prey. Finding this led to an interesting discovery: Old World vultures are unrelated to the New World vultures; all similarities between the two are a result of convergent evolution. While the Old World vultures evolved from hawk- and eagle-like birds, New World vultures—such as our beloved turkey vulture, or the largest flying bird, the Andean Condor—evolved into a similar niche from storks. This confusion on relationships even led to the common name I’ve been calling Aegypius monachus. It needed to be distinguishable from the American Black Vulture, now considered unrelated, so it was given a name meaning “ashy colored,” thus, “Cinereous.”

While the Cinereous Vulture is only listed as Near Threatened according to the IUCN, Europe1 classifies it as Vulnerable. The population decline is frequently attributed to poisoned meat set out to kill potential livestock predators, and a general lack of carcasses lying around due to quicker removal of dead cows, which were a historical food source.

Thankfully, European conservationalists have kicked into gear, so the Cinereous Vulture may never have to see the Threatened category on the IUCN list. Breeding programs have been set up in France, Spain, and heck, there’s even a breeding program at the Cleveland Zoo. Due to good management practices, their numbers are increasing rapidly in Greece. Actual direct hunting of the Cinereous Vulture has pretty much stopped because of outreach programs to the public.

1I didn’t even realize there was a list for all of Europe! Though, I can’t seem to find the list itself.

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