Both black vultures & turkey vultures are rapidly expanding U.S. range and numbers
Feeling down about global warming, chemical pollution, and reports about loss of species?
See the vultures circling overhead?
Both black vultures and turkey vultures are rapidly expanding in numbers and range across the U.S.
Turkey vultures have even appeared in southeastern Alaska in early 2022, far north of their usual range.
Though this reflects global warming, the expansion of North American vulture range is also among the best of harbingers for an ecologically healthy world.
Signs of recovery beginning abroad, too
African, Asian, and European vulture species are still struggling, after decades in decline, but some of them, too, appear to be making comebacks.
Little could be better news for the beleaguered world.
Circling vultures do not mean we are all going to die. That will happen sooner or later, with or without vultures. But mass deaths are more likely to happen, if environmental threats are involved, where there are no vultures to be seen.
No vultures means severely unhealthy habitat.
Eagles showing the way
Conversely, vulture recovery, including here in the U.S. the recovery of bald eagles, golden eagles, and California condors to pre-20th century abundance, signifies that we are winning the long, slow, and often frustrating battle to save wildlife from the down side of civilization.
Of course vultures and other scavengers thrive on death. War, disease, famine, and drought notoriously draw vast congregations of vultures to squabble over the remains of the victims, leaving behind little but clean-picked bones.
But war, disease, famine, and drought are not permanent conditions. They don’t sustain vulture populations.
Sustained death requires sustained life
Sustained death sustains vultures. Sustained death requires sustained life: thriving populations of both wildlife and farmed animals, succumbing to normal routine causes at a normal, routine rate that does not interfere with reproduction and does not lastingly deplete the species whose exposed corpses become vulture food.
The decline of black vultures, turkey vultures, and California condors during the 20th century had many causes.
Like bald and golden eagles, vultures and condors were severely affected by build-ups of the pesticide DDT in their food chain, leading to abnormally fragile eggs and therefore to failures of reproduction.
Also like bald and golden eagles, vultures do not become reproductively mature until at least five years of age, so are slow to recover from any lack of breeding success.
Industrializing poultry farming and moving all forms of slaughter for human consumption indoors during the mid-20th century cut deeply into vulture access to carcass production by human activity.
An increasing volume of roadkill associated with rapidly rising automobile use partially compensated, but a sustained abundance of roadkill requires a sustained abundance of wildlife.
Among habitat loss through logging, swamp drainage, and ploughing, compounded by hunting and trapping, U.S. populations of terrestrial wildlife in the mid-20th century appear to have been at their lowest ebb for most species since humans settled in North America.
Even rabbits were reintroduced to much of Ohio. Hunting deer was prohibited for decades in Connecticut due to scarcity, resuming in 1973.
But the recovery of urban and suburban tree canopy, restoration of wetlands, abolition of market hunting, decline of sport hunting and trapping, replacement of the oldest and most lethal pesticides with milder, more target-specific versions, and increased human tolerance of wildlife have since the last decades of the 20th century contributed to an unprecedented wildlife rebound.
“What is striking is how many wild species, large and small, have come back–from near extinction in some cases,” observed former New York Times environment writer Jim Sterba in his 2012 opus Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds.
“They aren’t all back, of course,” Sterba acknowledged, “but many animal and bird populations not only have been nursed back to health but have adjusted unexpectedly to life among people. This has happened nationwide, but is especially true in the eastern third of the country, where the majority of Americans live…It is very likely that more people live in closer proximity to more wild animals and birds in the eastern U.S. today than anywhere on the planet at any time in history.”
Black vultures are among the most visible beneficiaries of the wildlife comeback in the eastern U.S., scavenging the remains of everything from alligators to zebra mussels.
Turkey vultures are major beneficiaries over the western two-thirds of the U.S.
California condors are a minor but indicative beneficiary, having recovered over the past 40 years from a remnant population of only 22 to at least 518 at present, 337 of them living in the wild, soaring over five western states and northern Mexico.
Bald eagles, who hunt fish, small mammals, and sometimes other birds as well as scavenging, began their comeback almost as soon as DDT was banned from most uses in the U.S. in 1972.
Removed from the U.S. endangered species list in 2007, bald eagles since then have more than quadrupled their numbers, from circa 72,000 nationwide to more than 317,000.
This recovery too reflects the general recovery of U.S. wildlife habitat and the wildlife using it.
Vultures vs. disease
Globally, the news concerning vultures is not nearly so good, and remains a matter of grave ecological concern.
Exceptionally disease-resistant, vultures are nature’s first line of defense––other than death itself––against the spread of pestilence from dead animals to the living,
The decline of vultures is not conclusively linked to any of the major outbreaks of zoonotic disease afflicting the world in the early 21st century, but the H5N1 avian influenza, foot-and-mouth disease, anthrax, mad cow disease, and many others can be spread by the diseased dead infecting living animals, including humans, and have spread rapidly through the same regions where vultures have been struggling.
(Neither COVID-19 nor SARS-1, however, are known to spread in this manner. The disease agents responsible for COVID-19 and SARS-1 die with the infected victims.)
A current concern is that park rangers at Hontoon Island State Park in Florida noticed in February 2022 that black vultures were dying at higher-than-normal rates. Investigators have hypothesized that consuming the remains of birds who died from H5N1 might have infected and killed the dead black vultures.
However, reports of vulture deaths from H5N1 elsewhere around the world, including during previous H5N1 pandemics, are exceedingly few.
Wrote All About Birds author Scott Weidensaul on March 19, 2021, “Vultures are already the most threatened group of raptors in the world, which is why, in some respects, the unfolding crisis in Africa feels like the repeat of a bad dream that played out in South Asia in the 1990s.
“There,” summarized Wiedensaul, “vulture populations—especially in India, Pakistan, and Nepal—rapidly crumbled after farmers began treating their livestock with a cheap non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain reliever called diclofenac, which eases aches and increases milk yields.”
Diclofenac, Weidensaul explained, is “astoundingly toxic to many Old World vultures that feed on the carcasses of livestock treated with it. By 2007, vulture populations in India had dropped by as much as 99.9%, and by only slightly less apocalyptic rates elsewhere in the region—almost all because of diclofenac.
“Frantic, last-ditch efforts like captive-breeding programs and campaigns to stop the veterinary use of diclofenac have stabilized the vulture population in Asia today,” Weidenthal wrote.
“But now a similar collapse is playing out across Africa,” Weidenthal warned, “with different driving forces that make the situation at once more challenging, and perhaps more hopeful, for those trying to stave off another vulture disaster.”
BirdLife South Africa in 2018 listed 22 of the 80 known raptor species in the country as either “threatened” or “critically endangered,” among them the bearded vulture, Cape vulture, hooded vulture, African white-backed vulture and white-headed vulture.
The 80 vulture species native to South Africa include most of the vulture species native to the whole of Africa.
Another African vulture species, the Egyptian vulture, is not native to South Africa, but may be the most widely ranging member of the vulture family, found all the way from Spain to China and from southern Russia to northern Botswana and Zimbabwe.
The only vulture believed to range as widely is the king vulture, circling from Mexico to Argentina.
In addition to vulture losses attributable to incidental causes, such as ingesting diclophenac or suffering secondary poisoning from consuming poisoned “nuisance” wildlife and animals poisoned deliberately by poachers, vultures are often directly targeted in regions of Africa where traditional animist religious practices persist.
“According to a peer-reviewed paper by ecologist Mbali Mashele, vultures play a significant role in the spiritual practices and occult beliefs of various communities in Africa,” recently summarized Dominic Naidoo and Alexandra Howard on May 2, 2022 for the South African newspaper Daily Maverick.
“Mbali and her team interviewed 51 traditional healers and 197 others in nine villages in the Bushbuckridge Local Municipality, near protected areas including Greater Kruger,” Naidoo and Howard wrote. “They found that vulture body parts were commonly used by people hoping to see into the future, appease their ancestors, for good luck, and to cure illnesses.”
Vulture poaching & poisoning
The Mbali paper, published in the journal Global Ecology & Conservation, noted a spike in intentional vulture poisoning and poaching.
“Conservation stakeholders have identified evidence that a number of vulture species in particular ecosystems are being systematically targeted by poisoning, with potentially significant effects on human, wildlife and ecosystem health,” said University of Maryland associate professor Meredith Gore,and her co-authors.
“However you choose to phrase it,” Naidoo and Howard assessed, “the fact remains that in African lore, vultures are credited with supernatural powers – and how best to address this has conservationists vexed.”
Reasons for optimism
But Naidoo and Howard found reasons for optimism.
“Amos Kafera, a registered traditional healer from Zimbabwe, says the vulture is widely recognized for its powers of prophecy. But people who knew how to make these powerful medicines have long passed on,” Kafera told Naidoo and Howard.
“These days people are killing vultures indiscriminately. We do not encourage it. The bird should not be killed,” Kafera said.
“Spokesperson and former chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Traditional Healers’ Association Sazi Mhlongo agrees,” Nadoo and Howard wrote.
Can’t get stoned on vulture brains
Mhlongo “dismissed myths that consuming, smoking or inhaling dried-out vulture brains could improve odds when gambling on the lottery, in placing sport bets, or preparing for exams,” Naidoo and Howard reported.
Mthlongo “also scoffed at claims that vultures’ eyes can be used to see into the future or simply to improve eyesight; their beaks for protection; and their feet to heal fractured bones or make a person run faster,” Naidoo and Howard continued.
“These false beliefs about the medicinal use of vultures are caused and perpetuated by people who do not have enough information about traditional medicine,” Mhlongo told Naidoo and Howard.
“Traditional healers who are not trained practitioners and who want quick cash continue to mislead people by convincing them that killing a vulture or using the bird’s parts will create wealth for them,” Mhlongo added.
“These are senseless killings of a bird with no medicinal significance or healing properties,” Mthlongo emphasized.
Vulture recovery in Nepal
While Kafera and Mthlongo team with conservationists to educate Africans against killing vultures, Nepalese tourism entrepreneur Dhan Bahadur Chaudhary is actively engaged in promoting vulture recovery.
Chaudhary began by starting the first of what are now a chain of seven Nepalese “vulture restaurants” in Pithauli, near Chitwan National Park, assisted by Bird Conservation Nepal.
The “vulture restaurants,” featuring the remains of elderly cattle bought from local farmer, became a tourist attraction.
Bird Conservation Nepal affirmed recently to the German periodical Deutsche Welle that “vulture numbers are rising steadily, year on year.”
“But it’s not all plain sailing,” Deutsche Welle acknowledged. “Enforcing the ban on diclofenac has been a challenge, and legal anti-inflammatory drugs and other poisons are a threat, too.”
“Last April,” Deutsche Welle said, “67 vultures were found dead in Chitwan after they fed on the carcasses of stray dogs that had been poisoned, according to local media reports.”
Egyptian vulture study sparks panic in Asian sub-continent
To the south, in India and Pakistan, Peregrine Fund vulture researcher Evan Buechley touched off panic in February 2022 with a study published by the Journal of Wildlife Management, funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Utah, HawkWatch International, the Peregrine Fund and the National Geographic Society, which focused on congregations of vultures around the open-air slaughtering and rendering facilities of Ethiopia.
By the end of the five-year study period, 2014-2019, “the number of Rüppell’s and white-backed vultures visiting the abattoir disposal yards decreased by 73%. Hooded vulture visits decreased by 15%. Over the same time, feral dog detections more than doubled,” Science Daily summarized.
This is a logical consequence of vulture depletion in locations where offal from slaughtering and rendering is accessible to dogs.
But Buechley then erroneously extrapolated his findings to India and Pakistan, where most slaughtering and rendering are also done outdoors, yet where both the street dog population and numbers of human rabies victims have fallen almost as rapidly as the vulture population for more than 20 years.
Science Daily and Indian and Pakistani media soon amplified the Buechley statements, along with the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED), all of them failing to check Buechley’s suppositions against current data.
“A chilling consequence of the rise of dogs may be a rise of rabies rates in humans,” Science Daily summarized. “In the late 1990s, vulture populations in India and Pakistan crashed. Feral dog populations increased to take advantage of the uneaten carrion,” Science Daily asserted.
“There’s been a link drawn between a big spike in feral dog populations and rabies in India,” Buechley asserted.
On the contrary, mountains of data from India confirm a steep and steady decline in the street dog populations of most cities and nationwide since the introduction of the Indian national Animal Birth Control program in 2003, modeled after programs previously tested by the Blue Cross of India in Chennai for more than 30 years and in other cities including Mumbai and Hyderabad for several years each.
Animal Birth Control
The Animal Birth Control program subsidizes spaying and neutering through city-managed programs mostly conducted by nonprofit animal hospitals.
Simultaneously, the owned dog population of India has been rising, reflective of a growing and more affluent Indian middle class, so that the overall Indian dog population has not changed much; but most of the owned dogs, like owned dogs in other nations, are fed in homes, not allowed to roam in search of carrion or slaughterhouse waste.
Neither has there been any “spike,” or any rise at all in human rabies cases in India, in many decades.
Indian rabies deaths are fewest since counts began
The 2020 Indian national rabies death survey by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence, the Indian equivalent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, showed for the 18th consecutive year that the Indian rabies case load is magnitudes of order less than is often claimed by the World Organization for Animal Health, the OIE, and the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, none of which have any recent hard data to support their allegations.
Actual annual rabies death totals reported by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence were 125 human rabies deaths for all of India in 2014, up from an initial report of 98 due to late-arriving case reports; 113 in 2015; 86 in 2016; 97 in 2017; 116 in 2018; 118 in 2019; and just 55 in 2020, the lowest count ever.
India had 132 human rabies deaths in 2013, after averaging 249 since 2005, according to Central Bureau of Health Intelligence data.
WHO still relies on 1911 data?
Much of the input data for the extrapolated numbers favored by the OIE, World Health Organization, and Global Alliance for Rabies Control appears to originate––as ANIMALS 24-7 has extensively investigated and reported––with a national survey of government hospitals published in 1911 by David Semple and William F. Harvey, done just before they introduced post-rabies exposure vaccination to India.
The same 1911 survey furnished the baseline data still used for projections of rabies deaths in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, all of which were also then under British administration as part of colonial British India.
The Central Bureau of Health Intelligence uses essentially the same hospital survey method that Semple and Harvey used, but expedited by the use of electronic communications.
Literature reviews vs. actual body counts
Studies funded by the World Health Organization have supported both the high and the low numbers––the high number coming from literature reviews recycling the older estimates, the low number from an actual hospital study done in 2003 by M.K. Sudarshan, director of the Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences in Bangalore.
Sudarshan found 235 human rabies deaths for the whole of India, consistent with the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence findings.
Buechley, to be sure, did not mean to incite more of the dog pogroms which from time to time erupt in Indian cities, often resulting in mass killings of dogs who have already been sterilized and vaccinated by Animal Birth Control programs, thereby opening habitat to dogs who have neither been sterilized nor vaccinated.
Buechley, rather, recommended that open-air slaughtering facilities should be kept securely fenced, to keep dogs out, while leaving vultures safer to do their job.