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Conservation Status

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Vulnerable

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2011, BirdLife International
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Cooleman, Stijn

Distribution

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Sub-Saharan Africa: soudanian savanna zone Senegal - Ethiopia and south to N Namibia - NE South Africa.

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Lack 2010
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Cooleman, Stijn

Habitat

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Woodland and savanna

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Cooleman, Stijn

Movements and dispersal

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Resident

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Biology

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The white-headed vulture is an early riser and flies out from its roost earlier in the day than other vultures (4). It is often the first vulture to arrive at a kill made by carnivores during the previous night, and will feed on carrion and bone fragments in peace for a while before other vultures arrive (2), whereupon the white-headed vulture generally retreats (4) (7). White-headed vultures can, however, be very aggressive at a carcass and will rush in to a group of vultures to grab a scrap of food that is then taken away (7). This vulture species generally feeds alone or in pairs, and even at a large carcass rarely more than a handful of white-headed vultures will gather (2). They are considered to be an 'aloof' vulture, generally remaining on the fringe of a large group of feeding vultures (7). While the white-headed vulture generally feeds on carcasses, it will also steal food from other birds and, unlike most other vultures, sometimes kills small or weak prey. The diet of the white-headed vulture also includes termites, locusts, and sometimes stranded fish, when they are available (2) (7). White-headed vultures lay a single egg at a time, usually in the dry season (2), into a nest they have constructed high up in a thorny acacia or baobab tree (4). The egg is incubated for 55 to 56 days (2). Initially white, the chick will have mostly brown plumage not long after it fledges at an age of 115 to 120 days (2) (7).
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Conservation

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Relatively little is known about the biology of this species, and any research is a valuable contribution to its conservation (7). The white-headed vulture is very reliant on protected areas throughout its range (6), which may protect certain populations from the threats of habitat loss and poisoning. To protect this accomplished scavenger and other vultures from becoming increasingly threatened, it has been recommended that further campaigns are implemented to raise awareness in farmers about the affect of poisoning on vultures (6) (9).
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Description

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With its bare, pink face and bright orange-red bill with a peacock blue base, this is one of Africa's most colourful vultures (4). The white-headed vulture gets its name from the downy, white feathers on its head which give it an angular appearance. The bright facial colours contrast sharply with the black body, tail, wings and high ruff around its neck. The belly and thighs are white and its legs are pale pink (2) (4). Like other vultures, the white-headed vulture has a number of adaptations for feeding on the carcasses of large animals, but is also capable of killing small prey. The strong bill is capable of tearing flesh and the sharp, curved talons can grasp and pierce prey. Their large, broad wings can carry them for hours as they search for food (5).
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Habitat

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Inhabits hot, dry woodland and tree savanna (2), generally at lower altitudes, but can be found up to elevations of 4,000 metres (6). The species is commonly found in association with the baobab tree Adansonia digitata (7).
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Range

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The white-headed vulture has a widespread but patchy distribution in Africa, from Senegal east to Ethiopia, and south through East Africa to Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and northern South Africa (2).
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Status

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Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2007 (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).
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Threats

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Assessed as Vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the white-headed vulture is threatened by reductions in populations of medium-sized mammals and wild ungulates, on whose carcasses they feed, and the loss of suitable habitat (6). As a result, populations have been declining rapidly in West Africa since the early 1940s, and in southern Africa it now only generally occurs within protected areas (8). Like other vultures, some are accidentally killed after eating poisoned bait, set out by farmers to kill jackals suspected of taking their livestock (6), and human disturbance can cause adult white-headed vultures to abandon their nests during breeding (8), and the species is also susceptible to capture for trade and traditional medicine (7).
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White-headed vulture

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The white-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) is an Old World vulture endemic to Africa. Populations have been declining steeply in recent years due to habitat degradation and poisoning of vultures at carcasses.

Description

The white-headed vulture is a medium-sized vulture, 72–85 centimetres (28–33 in) in length and with a wingspan of 207–230 centimetres (81–91 in). Females have an average weight of 4.7 kilograms (10 lb), while males are generally lighter at 4 kilograms (8.8 lb) or less. This species is unique among African vultures as it shows a degree of reversed sexual dimorphism, where females are somewhat larger than males.[2]

It has a pink beak and a white crest, and the featherless areas on its head are pale. It has dark brown upper parts and black tail feathers. The feathers on its lower parts and legs are white, giving it its diagnostic image from below.[3][4] These vultures are easily distinguishable from all other vulture species as the plumage exhibits a strong contrast between black and white. Individual white-headed vultures can also be reliably identified based on a unique pattern in their median wing coverts.[2]

Distribution and habitat

The white-headed vulture is widely spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, occurring from Senegal and Gambia east to Somalia and south to South Africa and Swaziland. It is locally uncommon to common. A total population of 10,500-18,750 individuals has been estimated, but newer estimates following recent declines suggest a population of just 5,500 individuals. It is estimated that 400 protected areas contain 1893 White-headed vulture nests, with 721 nests occurring in Eastern Africa, 548 in Central Africa, 468 in Southern Africa and 156 in West Africa [5]The species prefers mixed, dry woodland at low altitudes. It occurs at elevations of up to 4,000 m in Ethiopia, perhaps 3,000 m in Kenya, and can be found in thorny Acacia-dominated landscape in Botswana. It generally avoids human habitation [6] and are considered to be restricted to protected areas. For example, the Kruger National Park and neighboring conservation areas hold the largest population of the species in South Africa.[5]

Ecology

The species is long-lived and appears to be loyal to a territory where it remains resident. It builds nests in trees (mostly acacias or baobab).[6] Senegalia species are also preferred, with nests occurring on the top of the canopy in low relief, flatter areas.[5] These vultures usually lay a single egg a couple of months after the rainy season has ended and the dry season is underway.[6] It is generally a solitary species and nests in isolated, possibly territorial pairs [7] From a study across 73 pairs , the average productivity of 55 breeding attempts was 0.69 chicks per pair. White headed vultures are known to exhibit a characteristic breeding behaviour. From a study in the Kruger National Park, copulation only occurred on the nest and is described as a subtle and inconspicuous process that lasts approximately 15 to 20 seconds. Preceding actual copulation the female bird stands perpendicular to and in front of the male. The “head turning” behaviour, typically observed in other Aegypiine vultures, was not observed. The sound made by the birds during copulation is unusual and best described as a very deep squeak, but longer than a grunt.[7] The white-headed vulture is predominantly a carrion-eater; frequently flying lower than other vulture species, it is often the first species to turn up at a carcass. However, the species is probably also an active predator if the occasion arises.[6] For example, incidences of pairs preying on species such as mongoose (Galarella sanguinea) , monitor lizards (Varanus spp), tree squirrels (Paraxerus cepapi) and scrub hares (Lepus saxatilis) have been recorded. In three of these four events cooperative behaviour between the birds was apparent, thereby suggesting that this behaviour is not uncommon. There was also no observable agonistic behaviour between birds while feeding and the birds appeared practiced and unaffected by the presence of an observer. These observations suggest that the White headed Vulture might be regular facultative predators. However, extensive field reports are lacking therefore further research is warranted.[8]

Additionally, the visual field of this vulture species is more similar to other predatory species such as the accipitrid hawk than to that of more closely related, carrion feeding Gyps vultures. Specifically, they have a significantly wider binocular field (30°, compared to the 20° of Gyps vultures), which is thought to help with the accurate placement and timing of the talons necessary to capture live prey.[9]

Conservation

White-headed vulture populations have been declining since the early 1940s; it was classified as Vulnerable in the 2007 IUCN Red List. Recent indications that the species is rarer than previously thought have led to a status upgrade to Critically Endangered in 2015.[1]

The main threats to white-headed vulture populations are reductions in the availability of suitable food sources (carcasses of medium-sized mammals and ungulates) and the loss of habitat to the spread of urban and agricultural developments. Poisoning through baits set for other carnivores such as jackals and hyenas, as well as targeted poisoning of vultures (by poachers who seek to prevent vultures from drawing attention to an illegal kill), is also an important factor. Secondary causes of decline is exploitation for the international trade in raptors and use in traditional medicines. The species is highly sensitive to land-use and tends to depart from degraded habitat, leading to high concentrations in protected areas. Potential introduction of the anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, which is fatal to all vultures of this genus when ingested at livestock carcasses, may represent a potential future threat.[1]

References

  1. ^ a b c BirdLife International (2012). "Trigonoceps occipitalis". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013..mw-parser-output cite.citation{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output q{quotes:"""""'"'"}.mw-parser-output code.cs1-code{color:inherit;background:inherit;border:inherit;padding:inherit}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-free a{background:url("//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/65/Lock-green.svg/9px-Lock-green.svg.png")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-limited a,.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-registration a{background:url("//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d6/Lock-gray-alt-2.svg/9px-Lock-gray-alt-2.svg.png")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-lock-subscription a{background:url("//upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/aa/Lock-red-alt-2.svg/9px-Lock-red-alt-2.svg.png")no-repeat;background-position:right .1em center}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration{color:#555}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription span,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration span{border-bottom:1px dotted;cursor:help}.mw-parser-output .cs1-hidden-error{display:none;font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-visible-error{font-size:100%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-subscription,.mw-parser-output .cs1-registration,.mw-parser-output .cs1-format{font-size:95%}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-left,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-left{padding-left:0.2em}.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-right,.mw-parser-output .cs1-kern-wl-right{padding-right:0.2em}
  2. ^ a b Campbell Murn (2012) Field identification of individual white-headed vultures Trigonoceps occipitalis using plumage patterns - an information theoretic approach, Bird Study, 59:4, 515-521, DOI: 10.1080/00063657.2012.717912
  3. ^ "Trigonoceps occipitalis". ARkive.org.
  4. ^ Ferguson-Lees, James; Christie, David A. (2001). Raptors of the world. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
  5. ^ a b c Murn, Campbell; Mundy, Peter; Virani, Munir.Z.; Borello, Wendy D.; Holloway, Graham J.; Thiollay, Jean-Marc (9 December 2015). "Using Africa's protected area network to estimate the global population of a threatened and declining species: a case study of the Critically Endangered White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis". Ecology and Evolution. 6 (4): 1092-1103. doi:10.1002/ece3.1931. Retrieved 21 May 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d "White-headed Vulture - Trigonoceps occipitalis: factsheet". Birdlife International.
  7. ^ a b Campbell Murn & Graham J Holloway (2014) Breeding biology of the White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis in Kruger National Park, South Africa, Ostrich, 85:2, 125-130, DOI: 10.2989/00306525.2014.924598
  8. ^ Murn, C.P. 2014. Observations of predatory behavior by White-headed Vultures. J. Raptor Res. 48: 297–299.
  9. ^ Portugal, S. J.; Murn, C. P.; Martin, G. R. (2017). "White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis shows visual field characteristics of hunting raptors". Ibis. 159 (2): 463–466. doi:10.1111/ibi.12448.

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White-headed vulture: Brief Summary

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The white-headed vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) is an Old World vulture endemic to Africa. Populations have been declining steeply in recent years due to habitat degradation and poisoning of vultures at carcasses.

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