Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture) 

Witrugaasvoël [Afrikaans]; Ekuvi (generic term for vulture) [Kwangali]; Gora (generic name for vulture) [Shona]; Lingce (generic term for vulture) [Swazi]; Koti (generic term for vulture) [Tsonga]; Kopajammutla, Lenông [Tswana]; Witruggier [Dutch]; Vautour africain [French]; Weißrückengeier [German]; Grifo-de-dorso-branco [Portuguese]

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Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture)  Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture) 
White-backed vulture, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. [photo Gerhard Theron ©]

White-backed vultures (foreground) and a Lappet-faced vulture (backround) feeding on a Buffalo carcass.

Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture)  Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture) 
White-backed vultures fighting over food, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa. [photo Gerhard Theron ©] White-backed vulture pair at their nest, Umfolozi Game Reserve, South Africa. [photo Johan van Rensburg ©]

Distribution and habitat

Occurs in Africa south of the Sahel, avoiding the lowland forest of the DRC. In southern Africa it is locally common across the northern half of the region, extending into the savanna and grassland of South Africa. It generally prefers arid savanna with scattered trees, such as Mopane (Colosphermum mopane), largely avoiding forests, deserts, treeless grassland and shrubland.

Distribution of White-backed vulture in southern Africa, based on statistical smoothing of the records from first SA Bird Atlas Project (© Animal Demography unit, University of Cape Town; smoothing by Birgit Erni and Francesca Little). Colours range from dark blue (most common) through to yellow (least common). See here for the latest distribution from the SABAP2.  

Predators and parasites

Movements and migrations

Largely resident, although juveniles and immature birds may disperse from their parent's territories, travelling up to about 1 500 km in search of an area to settle.

Food 

It is mainly eats carrion, searching aerially until it spots a carcass, or alternatively following mammalian carnivores and other scavenging birds to the carcass. Once on the scene, it is extremely aggressive to the other feeding animals, pushing them out of the way and outstretching its neck and wings in a threat display, so that it can access the meat. It is generally a subordinate to larger vultures, in fact in the feeding frenzy it sometimes become stuck in the carcass and is eaten by the other scavengers! It rarely hunts and kills its own prey, such as young Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), Red-billed quelea chicks and Warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus).

Breeding

  • Monogamous and usually semi-colonial, nesting either singly or in loose colonies of up to 10 pairs, 50-200  metres apart in scattered trees.
  • The nest (see images below) is a platform of sticks lined with dry grass and sometimes green leaves, typically placed on the top of tree or on a man-made structure, about 7-25 metres. It particularly favours the following sites:
    • trees
      • Acacia
        • A. nigrescens (Knob thorn)
        • A. galpinii (Monkey acacia)
        • A. erioloba (Camel thorn)
        • A. tortillis (Umbrella thorn)
        • A. xanthophloea (Fever-tree acacia)
      • Ficus sycomorus (Sycomore fig)
      • Euclea pseudebenus (Black ebony)
      • Adansonia digitata (Baobab)
      • Philanoptera violacea (Apple-leaf)
      • Hyphaene coriacea (Lala-palm)
    • power pylon
    • on top of an old nest of another bird, such as:
Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture) Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture)
fig. 1 - White-backed vulture arrives at its nest, where it's mate has been taking care of their chick. [photo Gerhard Theron ©] fig. 2 - The breeding pair greet each other. [photo Gerhard Theron ©]
Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture) Gyps africanus (White-backed vulture)
fig. 3 - The bird that had been caring for the chick leaves, leaving its mate to care for the chick. [photo Gerhard Theron ©]

fig. 4 - The remaining adult feeds regurgitates food to the chick.  [photo Gerhard Theron ©]

  • Egg-laying season is from June-September in KwaZulu-Natal, and from April-July elsewhere in southern Africa.
  • It almost always lays one egg, which is incubated by both sexes for about 56-58 days.
  • At first, the chick is almost constantly brooded by both parents, who change shifts 1-2 times per day (see images above). Both adults feed the chick, who eventually leaves the nest at about 108-140 days old, becoming fully independent about 5-6 months later.

Threats

Not threatened globally, but classified as Vulnerable in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Even though it is locally common, its population has decreased by about 10% in recent years. This is thought to have largely been caused by poisoning, which caused at least 500 deaths in southern Africa between 1995 and 2002.

References

  • Hockey PAR, Dean WRJ and Ryan PG 2005. Roberts - Birds of southern Africa, VIIth ed. The Trustees of the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town. 

 

 

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