Cape vultures, like this one flying over its native grounds in Gauteng, South Africa, are listed as a vulnerable species. This means they are not quite endangered, but still face threats such as habitat loss, poisoning, and electrocution.

Photograph by NJR ZA, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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    On September 5, 2009, conservation groups in South Africa and the United Kingdom organized the first International Vulture Awareness Day. Now it is celebrated each year on the first Saturday in September to highlight the ecological importance of vultures.

    Vultures are birds that evolved to scavenge carrion, or dead animals. The 23 species are divided into two main groups based on geography: Old World vultures (Asia, Africa, and Europe) and New World vultures (North and South America). Their similar bald appearance evolved independently at least twice, which means that New World vultures (such as black vultures) are more closely related to many other kinds of birds than to Old World vultures.

    Vultures are an important part of many food webs. Without vultures, carcasses take longer to decompose and may attract more mammalian scavengers or lay rotting while invertebrate scavengers clean up. In Africa, vultures such as the Cape vulture are under threat from poisoning by poachers because they can reveal the locations of poached carcasses when they circle overhead in large groups. Asian vultures suffered serious population declines in the last decade due to eating carcasses of domestic animals treated with a drug (diclofenac) that causes kidney failure. Some New World vultures, such as turkey vultures, are common and unthreatened, but both the California condor and Andean condor are threatened by poisoning and habitat loss. People can share their observations of vultures with the Great Nature Project or other citizen science projects in order to help understand vulture behavior and distributions.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    behavior Noun

    anything an organism does involving action or response to stimulation.

    carcass Noun

    dead body.

    carrion Noun

    flesh of a dead animal.

    celebrate Verb

    to observe or mark an important event with public and private ceremonies or festivities.

    citizen science Noun

    science project or program where volunteers who are not scientists conduct surveys, take measurements, or record observations.

    Encyclopedic Entry: citizen science
    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    convergent evolution Noun

    appearance of similar characteristics on organisms with different ancestors.

    decompose Verb

    to decay or break down.

    distribution Noun

    the way something is spread out over an area.

    Encyclopedic Entry: distribution
    domestic animal Noun

    animal that has been tamed for work or to be a pet.

    ecological Adjective

    having to do with the relationship between organisms and their environment.

    endangered species Noun

    organism threatened with extinction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species
    establish Verb

    to form or officially organize.

    evolve Verb

    to develop new characteristics based on adaptation and natural selection.

    food web Noun

    all related food chains in an ecosystem. Also called a food cycle.

    Encyclopedic Entry: food web
    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    kidney Noun

    organ that removes the waste products from blood and helps regulate general health.

    mammal Noun

    animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

    New World Noun

    the Western Hemisphere, made up of the Americas and their islands.

    Old World Noun

    the Eastern Hemisphere, especially Europe, Asia, and Africa.

    poach Verb

    to hunt, trap, or fish illegally.

    recognize Verb

    to identify or acknowledge.

    scavenge Verb

    to feed on dead or decaying material.

    scavenger Noun

    organism that eats dead or rotting biomass, such as animal flesh or plant material.

    Encyclopedic Entry: scavenger
    threaten Verb

    to scare or be a source of danger.