The Egyptian vulture also referred to as the Pharaoh’s chicken, or the White scavenger vulture, belongs to genus Neophron. In the past decades, their number has gone down dramatically in all of its native regions. Its present largest population – possibly 1300 to 1500 pairs – is in Spain. Even with all security measures to save this species from extinction, their numbers are sharply decreasing.
Species: N. percnopterus
The scientific name for Egyptian vulture is Neophron percnopterus.
The Egyptian vulture has three recognized subspecies –
Neophron percnopterus Percnopterus possesses a dark grey bill. As temperate zone breeders, they migrate to south during winter months. Neophron percnopterus ginginianus is the smallest of all its subspecies. They have a pale yellow bill. Neophron percnopterus majorensis are more genetically distinct from Neophron percnopterus percnopterus. It is locally known as ‘guirre.’ In 1902, Nikolai Zarudny, a Ukrainian-Russian zoologist, and Härms described a subspecies rubripersonatus (found in Balochistan). However, it was not considered as a valid subspecies. The different bill colouration pattern was because of an intermixing of the subspecies.
The adult specimen of the nominate subspecies Neophron percnopterus percnopterus is around 47 to 65 centimeters in length. Females are a bit larger than males. Neophron percnopterus ginginianus’ adult males are 47 to 52 centimeters in length; while the females are between 52 to 56 centimeters. Their wingspan is around 2.5 to 2.7 times larger than the body length.
Depending on subspecies, their weight can be between 1.8 kilograms to 2.5 kilograms. The adult’s plumage is brownish white, with flight feathers being black. They have pointed wings. The sexes are hard to distinguish. However, breeding males possess a deep orange facial color compared to females. They have a slender bill. The end of the upper mandible is hooked shaped. Adults’ legs are pink in color. They have straight claws. The underpart of their 3rd and 4th toes are a bit webbed.
This species primarily prefer arid, open regions with variable elevations. They are found in desert, cereal fields and in pastures among others. However, they like rocky regions for nesting. The scattered population are often seen near human habitations. In the urban, or suburban areas, they can be seen around slaughterhouses, rubbish dumps, and fishing ports.
The Egyptian vulture inhabits a large range throughout the Old World. The nominate subspecies Neophron percnopterus Percnopterus has the biggest range. It is found throughout southern Europe to the west, south through North Africa, the Sahel zone to northern Tanzania, north-west Namibia, south-west Angola, parts of Arabia, east to the central parts of Asia as well as in the North-west part of India.
Neophron percnopterus Ginginianus inhabits the Indian subcontinent, mostly found in India and Nepal. A small population of Neophron percnopterus majorensis inhabits the eastern part of the Canary Islands.
Their behavior depends on habitat and food availability. This species is generally solitary in nature, but at times, a large group of individuals can be seen at feeding sites, and they often roost cliffs, buildings, and large trees. Each day, a single adult individual can travel as far as 80 kilometers in order to search for food. They fly with strong wing beats while looking at the ground for potential prey. On the ground, they walk with a clumsy gait. They are an opportunistic feeder, and they often feed on the leftovers of other large animals. Researchers believe that since they consume ungulate feces, it helps them to get carotenoid pigments that in turn is responsible for their orange, and yellow facial skin. In the dominance hierarchy of scavenging birds, they stand below Griffons, but above Crows and Kites. The Egyptian vultures are greatly skillful in removing meat scraps from the bone following the turn of the dominant scavengers.
Neophron percnopterus breed once a year. Their breeding season varies depending on habitat and range. This species is monogamous, and they often migrate to places with their mate between the nesting season. Courtship display includes catalogue grappling among pairs.
Their nest is made up of sticks and lined with small pieces of rags or fur or wool. Males perform repeated aerial duels in order to defend their breeding territory. Female lays a clutch of 1 to 3 eggs. Initially female alone incubate the eggs for several days before the male also joins in. Incubation takes place for 39 to 45 days. Juveniles are chocolate brown or light brown in color, and they take 70 to 90 days to fledge. The young ones hunt on their own following fledgling. They reach sexual maturity at the age of six.
Neophron percnopterus are carnivorous. Their diet mostly consists of carrion, but they also consume small mammals, reptiles, a variety of insects, bird eggs, snails and nestlings. They are quite skillful in breaking other animals’ eggs with rocks. Animal feces, including human, is believed to be a great source of nutrient for this species.
They can live up to 21 years in the wild. The longest recorded lifespan of a captive individual was 37 years.
Egyptian vultures occasionally emit a high-pitched hissing sounds while in the nest. When threatened, or angry, they make a growl or hiss.
Adults do not have any natural predator. However, loss of habitats, unbalanced ecosystems, death from feeding on cattle that had been raised with unnatural, abnormal diet is pushing this species to extinction.
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists this species as ‘Endangered.’
Egyptian vulture occurs in several protected areas as it is subject to monitoring as well as supplementary feeding programs by many organizations.
This vulture was dying by feeding on dead animals that were once injected with veterinary drugs. As a cautionary measure India, Nepal, and Pakistan banned the use of diclofenac as a veterinary drug.
At times, this species can be seen rubbing themselves in ferric oxides rich soil, hence it gets the German (Deutsch) name ‘Schmutzgeier.’
In ancient Egypt, this bird was a symbol of royalty. And, they were protected by the Pharaonic law. It got the name ‘pharaoh’s chicken’ as they were commonly seen on the streets of ancient Egypt.
An Indian temple at Thirukalukundram was known for a pair of Egyptian vultures that supposedly came to the temple for ‘centuries.’ These birds were ceremonially fed on offerings with wheat, rice and ghee.
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