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Vultures over Britain

More unexplained sightings of predatory birds in our skies

Vultures over Britain
More and more vultures gathered over southern Britain in the second half of last year. On 11 November, birdwatchers saw an Indian white-backed vulture in Richmond Park in London (above) and there were reports of another sighting there a week earlier. Royal Parks gardener Steve Read saw it mobbed by hundreds of crows, magpies, parakeets and even a kestrel. It might have been Bones, a young male vulture with a wingspan of over two metres (6.6ft), which escaped in August from Blackbrook Zoological Park, near Leek in Staffordshire, 127 miles (204km) away – although Bones is an African (not an Indian) white-backed vulture.

A vulture was also seen over the Beddington sewage farm, near Croydon. Further vulture sighting reports came from Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Snowdonia and Bodmin Moor. Several people saw a vulture in the Thetford area of Norfolk in October. Also in October, observers in Sussex and Hampshire spotted a griffon vulture, a species found throughout much of southern Europe.

A bird believed to be a long-billed vulture was sighted several times in the mountains of Gwynedd, most recently above Blaenau Ffestiniog in November. Stonemason Keith Williams said his attention was first drawn by the bird’s unusual cry. The Independent Bird Register had several reports of the bird, but none of a missing vulture to match it. “It was much bigger than a heron in both length and breadth,” said Mr Williams, who was working with fellow stonemason Alun Jones. “Its wing span must have been two metres (6.6ft).” Mr Williams said they had seen the bird four or five times near the same place. It’s believed the same bird was seen in the Nantile Valley in August and more recently in the Bangor area.

A similar bird lives further south; George from Machynlleth in Powys made headlines in June when he was spotted flying high above the Dyfi valley. Only this one wasn’t George, whose owner Barry Macdonald said he had not been allowed to roam in November because of the windy conditions, and when he flew he didn’t venture very far north. Vultures are not built to fly very well, but rather soar on winds and thermals, picking up the smell of carrion. They also tend to move south over the winter, so the North Wales vulture was expected to turn up in Mid Wales.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) works on the assumption that the sightings are all of escaped captive birds. So does the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which thinks there is little chance that any vulture would survive a British winter. However, Mark Grantham, a bird migration specialist with the BTO, is more cautious. The recent success of reintroducing red kites is proof, he said, of just how productive Britain’s roads are for birds that feed on carrion. If kites can prosper, he argues, vultures probably would too, although long, wet winters would make for poor flying weather.

Meanwhile, on the Indian subcontinent, population numbers of three vulture species – Indian (or oriental) white-backed, long-billed and slender-billed – have fallen 97 per cent in only 12 years [FT209:10]. In 2003, research in Pakistan showed that this catastrophic decline was caused by diclofenac, a cheap anti-inflammatory drug used since the late 1980s to treat cattle and water buffalo in south Asia for a broad range of ailments from lameness to mastitis. In vultures – which routinely feed on dead livestock – the drug causes intestinal bleeding, kidney failure, and rapid death. Carcases that would have been picked clean by vultures are now left to rot, causing a serious health hazard and a population explosion in rats and feral dogs; and there is a crisis in the doongerwadis (Towers of Silence) in Mumbai (Bombay), where the Parsees rely on vultures to dispose of their dead [FT153:27]. Solar mirrors are not proving as efficient, as they’re ineffective during the monsoon.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that the Indian government finally banned diclofenac in favour of meloxicam – which tests have apparently shown is safe for vultures. Whether population numbers can recover remains to be seen: the birds produce on average just one egg a year.

Trivia: vultures can digest decaying meat as their stomachs can stand 100 times more botulism than a human’s. A group of vultures is called a ‘venue’, while vultures circling in the air form a ‘kettle’.

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