The Lappet-Faced Vulture - Not a pretty face
At Thornybush Nature Reserve we are fortunate to have thriving populations of vultures to keep our bushveld habitat in tip-top shape. These include the White-backed, Lappet-faced, White-headed, Cape and Hooded vulture, and our guests are often lucky enough to spot several of these at one time, either at a kill or roosting in trees.
The lappet-faced vulture is of particular interest and is also one of the Big Six Birds of the Kruger Lowveld. The other members of this elite group are Pel's fishing owl, Kori Bustard, Martial eagle, Saddle-billed stork and Ground hornbill.
Lappet-faced vultures get their name from the fleshy fold on the side of their bald heads, and are easily recognised by the reddish skin of the head, offset against a body cloaked in dark plumage, with contrasting white thigh feathers. As with other vultures, the absence of feathers on the head and neck prevents decaying meat from sticking to the bird while it feeds.
Lappet-faced vultures, with their robust bill, coupled with their large size, these features enable them to dominate kill sites, scare off lesser scavengers and also kill and eat birds, insects, rodents and even small impala if pressed.
They have been known to wait at termite mounds for the inhabitants to emerge, or attack colonies of flamingos, killing the young before devouring the eggs. The beak is strong enough to rip through tendons and sinew, and they can polish off a small antelope carcass within 20 minutes.
They might arrive at the feast later than other vultures but when they arrive they normally dominate proceedings, ripping through the tough outer skin and muscles of large animals, paving the way for the weaker members of the clean-up crew to tuck in. At other times they will patiently wait until these smaller scavengers have had their fill, before waddling in to clean up the remaining bits that the others cannot eat.
See if you can identify the lappet-faced vulture if you are lucky enough to spot a wake of vultures feeding at a carcass on your next game drive.