Devotees of death; connoisseurs of carnage: vultures are surely the most confirmed carnivores of the bird world. With eyesight that can clock a carcass from two miles away and a meat-hook bill for ripping through its hide, these birds are hardly likely to opt for the veggie alternative. You’d as soon offer lettuce to a leopard.
ut nature loves an exception to the rule, and among Africa’s 11 species of vulture there is one determined to do things differently. The palm-nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) is, like the giant panda, that strange oxymoron of nature: a vegetarian carnivore.
This species, the smallest of Africa’s vultures, eschews the pleasures of the flesh in favour of the tough nut of the raffia palm. It plucks the fruit with its bill – often hanging upside down in the process – then, clutching the prize in its talons, tears off the husk and eats it.
Studies have shown that up to 70 per cent of a palmnut vulture’s diet consists of fruit and nuts, the menu extending in some areas to oil palm and wild dates. However, even veggies have their lapses, and it will sometimes revert to type by snatching dead fish – and the occasional live one – from the shore.
It has also been known to eat crabs, molluscs, baby turtles, locusts and even the odd chicken. In wet savannah regions, you may occasionally find one scavenging with the carrion crowd, though it tends to hang back from the melée, moving in for titbits only after the bigger birds have had their fill.
Palmnut vultures occur widely across sub-Saharan Africa, though are uncommon in southern Africa where they are restricted largely to coastal regions – particularly those with stands of raffia or oil palms, such as South Africa’s Kozi Bay region.
In parts of West Africa they are very numerous, often found around fishing villages. They generally nest high in a palm, baobab or euphorbia, lining their large platform of sticks with grass, sisal fibre and dung.
This is not a hard bird to identify. In regions where it shares its wetland terrain with the African fish eagle, it is quickly distinguished by having much more white in its plumage. And, though similar in size and colouration to the uncommon Egyptian vulture, a good view through binoculars will reveal that its bare face is red, rather than yellow, and that its tail is shorter. In flight, its bold white primary feathers are unlike those of any other raptor.
So, next time you’re planning a raptor barbecue, don’t forget to set aside a few nut cutlets among the chops and ribs. Even a carnivore crowd has its veggies.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.