1902 Encyclopedia > Vulture


VULTURE, the name of certain birds whose best-known characteristic is that of feeding upon carcases, and these birds, owing to this obscene habit, are in many hot countries regarded with favour as useful scavengers. The genus Vultur, as instituted by Linnaeus, is now restricted by ornithologists to a single species, V. monachus, of which more presently, the other species included therein by him, or thereto referred by succeeding systematists, being else-where relegated (cf. LAMMERGEYER); but the most im-portant taxonomic change that has been introduced is that by Prof. Huxley (Proc. Zool. Society, 1867, pp. 462-464), who pointed out the complete structural difference between the Vultures of the New World and those of the Old, regarding the former as constituting a distinct Family, Cathartidx (which, however, would be more properly named Sarcorhamphidx), while he united the latter with

the ordinary diurnal Birds-of-Prey as Gypaetidx. This I arrangement seems to overlook the signification of some considerable distinctions, and to the present writer it would appear more reasonable to recognize the existence of a Family Vulturidx, confined to the true Vultures of the Ancient Continent, equal in rank to the Falconidx, while fully admitting the claim made on behalf of the New-World forms for the same standing.
The American Vulture may be said to include four genera:—(1) Sarcorhamphus, the gigantic Condor, the male distinguished by a large fleshy comb and wattles; (2) Gypagus, the King-Vulture, with its gaudily-coloured head and nasal carnncle ; (3) Catharista, containing the so-called Turkey-Buzzard of English-speaking Americans with its allies; and (4) Pseudogryphus, the great Californian Vulture—of very limited range on the western slopes of North America, and threatened with speedy extinction through the use of poison. Though all these birds are structurally so different from the true Vultures of the Old World, in habits the Vulturidx and Sarcorhamphidx are much alike, and of several of the latter—

King-Vulture (Gypagus papa).
particularly of the Condor and the Turkey-Buzzard—we possess rather elaborate accounts by excellent observers, as Darwin, Alex-ander Wilson, and Mr Gosse—whose works are readily accessible.
The true Vultures of the Old World, Vulturidx in the restricted sense, are generally divided into five or six genera, of which Neophron has been not unjustifiably separated as forming a dis-tinct Subfamily, Neophroninx,—its members, of comparatively small size, differing both in structure and habit considerably from the rest. One of them is the so-called Egyptian Vulture or Pharaoh's Hen, N. percnopterus, a bird whose delicacy of build and appearance contrast forcibly with its choice of the most filthy kind of food. It is a well-known species in some parts of India, and thence westward to Africa, where it has an extensive range. It also occurs on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and on three occasions has strayed to such a distance from its usual haunts as to have twice suffered capture in England, and once even in Norway. Of the genera composing the other Subfamily, Vulturinse, space is wanting to say much. Gyps numbers seven or eight local species and races, on more than one of which the English name Griffon has been fastened. The best known is G. fulvus, which by some authors is accounted " British," from an example having been taken in Ireland, though under circumstances which suggest its appear-ance so far from its nearest home in Spain to be due to man's inter-vention. The species, however, has a wider distribution on the European continent (especially towards the north-east) than the Egyptian Vulture, and in Africa nearly reaches the Equator, extend-ing also in Asia to the Himalaya; but both in the Ethiopian and Indian Regions its range inosculates with that of several allied forms or species. Pseudogyps with two forms—one Indian, the other African—differs from Gyps by having 12 instead of It rectrices. Of the genera Otogyps and Lophogyps nothing here need be said ; and then we have Vultzir, witn, as mentioned before, its sole representative, V. monachus, commonly known as the Cinereous Vulture, a bird which is found from the Straits of Gibraltar to the sea-coast of China. Almost all these birds inhabit rocky cliffs, on the ledges of which they build their nests.
The question whether Vultures in their search for food are guided by sight of the object or by its scent has long excited much interest, and the advocates of either opinion have warmly contended in its behalf. Without denying to them the olfactory faculty, it seems to be now gene-rally admitted, notwithstanding the assertions to the con-trary of Waterton and a few more, that the sense of sight is in almost every case sufficient to account for the observed facts. It is known that, directly a camel or other beast of burden drops dead, as the caravan to which it belonged is making its way across the desert, Vultures of one sort or another appear, often in considerable numbers, though none had before been observed by the ordinary traveller, and speedily devour the carcase over which they are gathered together. The mode in which communication is effected between the birds, which are soaring at an immense height, seems at first inexplicable, but Canon Tristram has suggested (Ibis, 1859, p. 280) the following simple solution of the supposed mystery:—
"The Griffon who first descries his quarry descends from his elevation at once. Another, sweeping the horizon at a still greater distance, observes his neighbour's movements and follows his course. A third, still further removed, follows the flight of the second ; he is traced by another ; and so a perpetual succession is kept up so long as a morsel of flesh remains over which to consort. I can conceive no other mode of accounting for the number of Vultures which in the course of a few hours will gather over a carcase, when previously the horizon might have been scanned in vain for more than one, or at the most two, in sight."
The Canon goes on to suppose that in this way may
be explained the enormous congregation of Vultures in
the Crimea during the siege of Sevastopol, where they
had before been scarce :—" the habit of watching the
movements of their neighbours" may " have collected
the whole race from the Caucasus and Asia Minor "—ho
might have added the Balkans—" to enjoy so unwonted
an abundance." Doubt may be entertained whether the
last supposition be correct, but none as to the accuracy of
the first. (A. N.)


In the eastern part of the Indian peninsula it is replaced by a smaller race or (according to some authorities) species, N. gingianus, which has a yellow instead of a black bill.
The geographical range of the various species of Vultures has been exhaustively treated by Mr Sharpe (Journ. Linn. Society, Zoology, xiii. pp. 1-26, pis. i.-ix.).

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