Vultures of all types have been in San Diego Zoo Global’s collection since our earliest days, starting with turkey and king vultures in the early 1920s and black vultures in 1926. Two Egyptian vultures arrived at the Zoo in 1947.
In the 1930s, a Southern California resident found a vulture nest and took its two chicks, which he believed to be California condors. The youngsters were confiscated by authorities and brought to our Zoo when they were a bit older, where it was determined that they were turkey vultures. We released them back into the wild when we felt they were old enough to venture out on their own. However, a few days later, we noticed that there were a lot of vultures hanging out in our trees, and one of them kept trying to get in our vulture aviary—it was one of the youngsters, and it had alerted its friends that there was free food to be had!
In 1982, as we geared up to help save the highly endangered California condor, we honed our husbandry techniques on Andean condors as well as king, turkey, and black vultures in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park’s newly built “Condorminium” complex. One local wild turkey vulture squeezed under and around fencing and gates to be inside with the Andean condors! He was soon placed in a room of his own that featured a specially prepared diet brought to him, the company of kin, and the opportunity, whenever he wanted, to exercise his wings.
Today, both the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park have Andean and California condors. In addition, the Safari Park is home to several Old World vulture species: Rueppell’s and lappet-faced vultures can be seen from the Africa Tram tour; hooded and Egyptian vultures are on exhibit in Africa Woods. The Park has been successful in breeding many vulture species over the years: king, Rueppell’s, and hooded vultures, and Andean and California condors. Our Condor Cam gives viewers a look at a Calfornia condor family at the Park.
Despite the vulture’s seemingly messy eating habits, it is a clean bird and bathes frequently. You may see our vultures bathing in their exhibit pool. Some of them even like getting doused with the hose by their keepers!
You may also see wild turkey vultures that hang around the Safari Park. They have excellent eyesight and can easily spot a keeper walking to an exhibit with a “free lunch.”
Things we humans put in our environment seem to be causing rapid declines in vulture populations. For example, in India and other parts of South Asia in the 1990s, huge numbers of vultures died. In 2000, San Diego Zoo Global joined the investigation to determine what was killing the birds. The outcome surprised everyone: an anti-inflammatory drug used by veterinarians and ranchers to help livestock. The vultures were eating livestock that had been treated by the drug, became sick, and died. Efforts were made to restrict the use of the drug in livestock.
Poachers in Africa and Asia are known to poison the carcasses of elephants they have killed, after they take the tusks, to kill any vultures that come to clean up the mess, believing the gathering birds might reveal the scene of the crime. Ranchers frustrated by large cat attacks on their livestock poison cattle carcasses to kill the carnivores, but the poison also kills the vultures that come to pick the carcass clean. And vultures die from eating meat killed by hunters using lead bullets; the birds slowly die from lead poisoning. A study done in southern Africa revealed that about 25 percent of the white-backed vultures Gyps africanus tested had high levels of lead in their blood.
The California condor Gymnogyps californianus, white-rumped vulture Gyps bengalensis, Indian vulture Gyps indicus, slender-billed vulture Gyps tenuirostris, and red-headed vulture Sarcogyps calvus are at critical risk.
To conserve these graceful scavengers, breeding programs, education, and awareness programs have been started for endangered vultures by organizations like The Peregrine Fund and Vulture Rescue. San Diego Zoo Global is significantly involved in the California Condor Recovery Program.
There are people fighting for these birds, and so can you! Place trash in the right bin, don’t use dangerous chemicals, dispose of harmful substances responsibly, and recycle. If you are a hunter, please use non-lead bullets. These are all ways that you can help wildlife, including those misunderstood vultures.