Where do black vultures nest? What does a black vulture eat? Do black vultures eat live animals? Now let’s see the history of the black vultures. The last days of summer. Covered with pine forests the high mountains of Kizilcahamam are greeting another morning. This place is one of the last heavens of a majestic creature in danger of extinction. The largest raptor in Europe lives in these forests. Its Latin name is Aegypius monachus so Cinereous vulture or the black vulture.
The black vulture is one of the fifteen species of vultures living in Asia, Europe and Africa. It’s the biggest one. A giant bird whose wingspan reaches three meters. One of the four species of vultures living in Europe and Turkey. It’s an endangered species all over the world and Turkey is one of its last shelters. Contrary to the general belief the black vulture is harmless to people and feeds exclusively on dead or dying animals. It is scanning the landscape for food on an autumn morning.
It’s able to see in three dimensions and in color with a resolution six times higher than the human eyes. With its angle of vision reaching 340 degrees, it’s almost impossible for it to miss what is happening on the ground. It’s able to spot the carcass it is looking for, from a height of 1000 meters but it doesn’t seem to be very lucky today. Some of them are not just interested in finding food at the moment. Black vultures set about an important task as soon as the courting period begins; Nesting.
But there is a problem. Black vultures are too big. It’s difficult to comprehend how big a black vulture is within the area it lives. With a wingspan close to three meters and a length exceeding one meter the grandeur of this bird can only be revealed when compared to more familiar creatures like pigeons. The moment when two partners meet at the nest and the greeting ceremony may last for many minutes.
Being monogamous creatures black vultures spend a lifetime together. Till death parts them. In appearance, there is not a significant physical characteristic that distinguishes the male from the female black vulture. In general, black vultures prepare for the incubation period by adding new materials to nests used in former years. But not only the female bird builds the nest.
This task belongs to the male as well. The most suitable materials for the nest are dried, backless branches of various trees and soft weeds. The position of the nest is important as well because they will spend a good seven months on it. The nest has to be in a sheltered valley suitable for flying lessons. The job to fit the new materials into the nest generally belongs to the female. Preparations may continue in several nests all at once.
The final selection will be made right before incubation. Neighbors at the nesting area may sometimes be annoying. The raven, one of the smartest birds, is only teasing at the moment. But it may not always be so harmless. Two black vultures flying close to one another in perfect harmony may only indicate one thing during the last days of autumn: Courting.
Fights that break out among black vultures trying to protect their nesting areas can easily be mistaken for the acrobatic movements of the courtship flight-play. Flight-rolls are a common behavior seen in both types of flights. The breeding and living areas of black vultures are woody landscapes close to steppes, the height of which differ from 300 to 2000 meters.
In spite of regional gaps in between, they appear in an area ranging from the Iberian Peninsula, Southern Europe and the Central Asia Plateau all the way to Mongolia and China. Their estimated number is about 10,000 pairs. Although the numbers are not definite there are at least 100 pairs of black vultures living in Turkey. The breeding areas in Turkey are in Central Western and Northern Anatolia.
Black vultures are also observed on the Black Sea and Mediterranean coasts though it is still not known whether they breed in these regions or not. The largest colony known is in Türkmenbaba-Eskişehir with 26 pairs, and the second one is in and around the Soğuksu National Park in Kızılcahamam with 10 pairs. After Spain, Turkey has the second largest black vulture population in Europe.
Autumn is about to end in the Türkmenbaba Mountains. The search for food is continuing. Animals that have died of natural causes or shot by hunters and villagers or the lifeless bodies of animals from domestic herds are the source of nourishment for vultures. For instance, the carcass of the wild boar lying on the ground is spotted at once. Yet, by ravens.
In general, ravens act more readily than the vultures. It is easier for them to take wing in case of danger because they are smaller and more nimble. The existence of ravens will gradually lead the vultures into the area as they constantly watch them. Safety is all important for black vultures. Their cautious wait may last for hours or even days. Seeing no sign of danger in the region this black vulture finally lands on the carrion.
However, it will have to share the feast soon. The crowd around the carrion has started to grow already. Black vultures find their food by way of sight not by way of smell like certain vultures living in North and South America do. This is why they keep other vultures and ravens in sight.
There is always something to eat when they are around. As the final ring of the food chain vultures undertake an important task in nature: Destroying animal carcasses that may be a source of epidemics. By doing so, they also accelerate the recycling process of organic materials in nature. A carcass putrified enough to make many creatures sick creates no problems for vultures.
The acids in their digestive system are so powerful that they can easily destroy deadly bacteria. The way they feed also determines the physical characteristics of vultures. As black vultures need to reach into the carrion head-on, there are few feathers on their necks. This way, they are protected against the bacteria that may settle in their plumage.
Their powerful beak reaching a length of 9 centimeters is a keratin structure like fingernails. The sharp and pointed tip of their upper beak lets them tear through the rough skin of carcasses. The function of the talon is balancing rather than carrying like those of predatory birds. Vultures around the carrion know very well, the meaning of ruffled feathers and this way of walking.
Although black vultures are dominant to ravens and other species of vultures at carcass, they do compete among themselves. The intensity of the fight is determined by the number of competitors the amount of food and the degree of their hunger. Conflicts are generally resolved without anyone getting seriously wounded.
The defeated vulture lets its feathers and tail down and retreats. Vultures may wait for their turn at a carcass for a long time. But this time they are not the only ones on the wait. The carcass, which is not yet rotten, is claimed by someone else. The activity in the Kalabak region of the Türkmenbaba Mountains, attracts a wolf to the vicinity as well.
Even though it has chased the vultures and ravens away, the timid wolf is not yet brave enough to take a share from the carrion. Vultures will wait until morning, roosting on nearby trees. However, the wolf is a lot more active during the night time. If it sees no danger, it may take the carrion deep into the forest tonight. When morning comes, the first thing the vultures do is to check whether the region is still safe or not.
Actually, vultures are not active in the wee hours but this time they start early in order to continue feeding on the carcass. Observation flights may take a little time. Black vultures have no natural enemies. The greatest threat for them is the human kind. The destruction of forests, narrows down their living and breeding areas. Poisoned meat scattered around to eliminate wolves and foxes kill vultures as well. The Kalabak region is safe for the time being. The carrion is still there.
Nothing has changed during the night. Ravens don’t leave the region either. As the crowd grows, those left behind from the wild boar become less and less. This means further fights are inevitable. It’s not all that easy for black vultures to find food everyday. Sometimes they have to go without food for days. A breeding pair of vultures may consume approximately 600 kilograms of flesh a year. They meet their little need of water by natural springs or from the food they eat.
Being composed of young vultures in general the group that is not able to find a place at carcass have to wait for their turn. The priority belongs to adult and strong vultures that are more dominant. The wolf that had come the other day is among those that are waiting in line. Black vultures don’t seem to mind it for the time being. But for such big birds, taking off from the ground is not as easy as landing on it. So the wolf is only harmless as long as it stays at a certain distance.
Vultures are most vulnerable when they are on the ground. Another visitor is the griffon vulture. As one of the four vulture species living in Turkey, the griffon vulture is waiting for its turn along with the young black vultures. The wings that are spread to sunbath now function as a way to make them look bigger than they actually are. But their turn may never come. Because the wolf cannot wait any longer.
It makes the move to take the remains of the wild boar to a safe place. It seems more determined and brave today. Maybe because it’s not alone. The chance for the black vultures to feed comes to an end. Anyway. As winter begins, vulture pairs select the nest that they will use to incubate and raise their young. Courtship flights and chases around the nesting areas are still going on. Black vulture pairs are showing their neighbors that they already have taken over the area. The bearded vulture is also in the region. They get the reddish color of their head and chest by rubbing them in soil containing iron oxide. It doesn’t have any problems with black vultures. But not everyone is as peaceful as they are.
A golden eagle is trying to mark its own nesting area. It is not really a rival of black vultures as it nests on rocks. But it has to determine its own borders against other birds of prey. This young golden eagle however, is not old enough to breed yet, but it still does not want to share the same area with other species of raptors. It’s not very happy about the black vulture nest in its territory. Its effort to chase the black vulture pair away does not seem to bring an easy result. The black vultures have no intention to leave their nest. They don’t hesitate to defend their nesting area against intruders.
And February. Winter in the 1600 meter high mountains of Kızılcahamam passes by under intense snowfall. Black vultures will be incubating soon enough.They have long selected their nest and made the necessary improvements. It’s not easy to find a nest that will bear up to the weight of black vultures which are close to 14 kilograms. They generally nest on trees, but rocks are another alternative. The solution in Kızılcahamam and Türkmenbaba forests is old black pines with level tops.
Only trees of this magnitude can carry black vulture nests which can reach up to 3 meters in diameter and 2 meters in height. The quiet days under snow will be followed by a busy period. They don’t leave the nest much before the female lays the egg. Black vultures reach sexual maturity at about five or six years of age and they spend their entire life, which lasts for about forty years with a single mate.
They find a new partner when one of the mates die. Copulation, which takes place many times before the incubation period takes about 30 to 60 seconds. It generally takes place at the nest or on the branches of nearby trees. Black vultures do not leave the nesting area much before the incubation period. Although they have to find food they’re strong enough to bear hunger and are able to wait for days until the weather conditions get better.
Considering the energy they have to spend flying may be more exhausting than going without food. This applies to many other species of birds. Meanwhile, ravens, on the other hand, active as usual are exploiting the last pieces of a carcass remaining from the snowless days. Nothing is wasted in nature. Being able to feed on almost anything, both vegetables and meat ravens are quite strong. Their dark plumage absorbs the sunlight and helps them endure the cold better.
There is not even a single vulture in the sky in the early hours of the morning. It’s not time yet. Black vultures may spend approximately eight hours a day in the air. However, their relatively small chest muscles and their weight that may exceed 10 kilograms make it very difficult for them to beat their wings for so long. Black vultures have to stay in the air longer by spending less energy. There is only one way to do that: Soaring. They just have to wait for the thermal currents to do that. Thermal currents emerge every morning when the sun begins to warm up the ground. As the destiny of the air decreases with the heat it creates columns rising up to the sky.
Vultures enter these warm air columns and are able to go higher soaring in the air almost without spending any energy. When the air moving upwards begins to cool its power to lift decreases and no longer carries the vulture. At this point, the vulture continues to glide down until it catches another thermal current and flies almost without beating its wings at all. Being able to reach a flight speed of 100 kilometers per hour momentarily the average flight speed of black vultures is approximately 50 kilometers per hour.
Being able to rise up to 2000-3000 meters of altitude the most unusual record of the black vulture is 11,000 meters. The thermal soaring and gliding technique requires certain physical features: A wide and long wing surface.
This feature helps them rise more easily on warm air currents. There are seven feathers at the tip of their wings called fingers. Their tail on the other hand, is composed of twelve feathers. It is half as long as the 80 centimeter width of the wing. Their function is to help change direction during the glide rather than making sudden maneuvers. When thermal currents lose their impact in the evening, vultures gradually begin to leave the sky. They generally roost on branches of trees in couples sometimes separated from one another, sometimes gathered in small groups. It’s resting time until the thermal currents of the next morning.
The remains of the carrion in Türkmenbaba has an unexpected visitor. The temperature is minus twenty degrees Celcius. The wetlands where this gray heron lives must have frozen. Hunger has brought it to this far and unusual region. There are other creatures exploiting the same remains: The jays and the bearded vulture. They take turns on the carrion. The final touch belongs to the bearded vulture. It feeds on bones. The bone begins to be digested as soon as it reaches the stomach. No other species of vultures can eat these bones. Black vultures are also in the region to get their share. But again, ravens are not leaving them alone. Hunger pumps up courage.
The end of February and the beginning of March is the beginning of an important period for black vultures. From now on, they will spend the next 55 days or so in the nest incubating. Black vultures lay a single egg each year. They will keep the egg warm and protect it against dangers whatever the weather conditions may be. The female and the male will take turns in doing this job. For hours, days, and weeks. Until the coming of spring.
During incubation, the job to bring new materials to the nest continues. The egg is kept more comfortable and warm in the softened floor of the nest. As the turn of duty may sometimes take days, the incubating vulture has to move at intervals. The egg should not be out in the open for long particularly when the weather is cold. That’s why the materials are gathered from nearby places. If something bad happens to the egg, before the first month of incubation is over the female vulture may lay a second egg within the same year. However, if it’s past that period, there is no other chance. Life may be a little dull for black vultures during this critical period.
The incubating black vulture prepares to turn the job over when its mate comes. The egg has to be turned almost twenty times a day in order to keep it in uniform warmth and the nest floor has to be aired. The egg also has to be protected against threats that may come from other birds. The job is now on the newcomer. The egg should not be left alone even for a moment. Just as it is at the nest. Ravens do not miss the chance when they find an unprotected vulture nest. They don’t intend to share this feast with anyone else. As the ravens feed on the sole egg of a black vulture pair, they are actually trying to ensure the continuation of their own species. This egg has a matchless nutritional value rich in calcium, proteins and various vitamins.
Now the raven has a very good chance to have strong eggs of its own. A good meal for ravens. Even though it is at the cost of a black vulture egg. The chased vulture is not the real owner of the nest. It is only a young stranger who has come to the now empty nest. This vulture, who is the real owner of the nest does not yet know what happened. Its mate is not in sight, and neither is the egg. The young vulture is coming back to the nest time and time again maybe in search of a mate. But its host pays no attention. It has lost its only chance to raise a chick this year. The much expected guest at this nest however has already come. The incubation period has been completed with success.
And it’s the end of April. The newcomer is only a few days old. Now, a more difficult task lays before the black vulture pair: To feed and raise their chick. During the first days, the chick is only as big as the head of an adult vulture. Particularly during the first week, the chick, just like the egg is protected under the body of its parents. Spending most of its time at sleep, the chick has a blue membrane over its eyes during its first month.
However, the membrane does not impede the chick from seeing its mother or father who will be feeding it. The mother feeds the chick by regurgitating the half-digested food it has stored in its crop. This way, it does not have to carry food to the nest in its mouth or claws for long distances. The parents take turns in doing this job as well.
However, there is a great deal of attention given to the chick in its first days. At times, the mother and the father may be on the job together. After feeding, cleaning the beak is particularly important. If neglected, certain deformations in the beak may occur during its rapid development. But the mother seems to be quite aware of that. The baby vulture only has down feathers for the time being and the sun may be harmful to it.
It has to be protected from that threat as well. It must be well-cared in the nest for the next four months. It has been forty days since the chick has hatched. Now it can stand up. Its black plumage has started to appear. Its wingspan has reached a meter. It is old enough to stay alone in the nest for short periods of time, but it’s still being protected against threats.
The black vulture chick uses the same method with all young animals to get to know its surroundings: Play. However, it has a limited variety of toys as it spends all its time in the nest. It abides by certain rules starting from its early days. The motto is ‘Keep your nest clean’. The plumage needs to be cleaned too. Adult black vultures spend almost half the day on this job. The chicks are no different. When the chick reaches its 50th day, it will be able to stand up more comfortably and its beak will become as big as the beak of the adults. But there’s still a long time until it grows up.
The early days of summer in the forests of Kızılcahamam, present a rich biological diversity. Nature is in its most lively period. Many species of animals are busy raising their young. Ruddy shelduck chicks have grown up quite well but they are still under the control of their mother. All young animals are rapidly developing.
The Egyptian vulture is the fourth species of vultures living in Turkey. It only comes to Turkey to breed and spends the winter in warmer regions like Africa. The black vulture nestling is continuing to grow rapidly. It’s 90 days old now. Its swollen crop indicates that it’s full. It’s obviously not able to fly yet but it has already started to exercise flapping its wings because it has to build up its flying muscles. About ten days later, its feathers have grown longer and it takes more time to clean them. The young bird’s appearance is almost like an adult now expect for its face and dark plumage. Two weeks later it will reach the size of its parents.
When it sees a vulture approaching the nest, it assumes a greeting position mixed with a threat-stand. Now its food calls can be heard from far away. The nestling gets water from the food it takes and has to eat in bigger quantities to be full. It begs for food not only by calling out but by biting its mother’s toes as well. Taking care of it is getting harder now. It’s now able to take all the food without even dropping it on the nest floor. Spending the greater part of the day by itself, the nestling is alone at the nest again after it’s full, and by the 120th day. The blackness of its face and its powerful wings indicate that the nestling has grown up at last. It has completed its fourth month at the nest. Its claws have developed enough to clutch on the branches.
Balancing, which is actually the hardest move is not difficult for it anymore. It’s time to leave the 2 meter wide nest for the endless skies. What it needs for the first flight is hard work. And then again, a strong wind to help it. A short-toed eagle making use of the same wind is in search of food. Summer is about to end. They have to feed, get stronger, and prepare for winter. This applies to all creatures of the forest. Wild boars, which become food for black vultures when they die help regenerate the forest by ploughing the soil.
As long as the prey and the predator sustain their species the ecosystem in which they live will continue to exist in a healthy way. Meanwhile, the nestling is now preparing to fly off the nest. The first flight of young black vultures generally takes place when they’re 100 or 110 days or even 120 days old. This nestling is 132 days old. It has already reached the weight of its parents.
But it will still be dependent on them for a while even after it leaves the nest. During the first few years its black face and plumage will be enough to indicate that it’s still young. Now it can jump higher than 2 meters and remain in the air for a long time. This is an indication that it is able to use its wings and tail much better. Now it has everything it needs to fly off and begin its new life in the sky. May its journey be pleasant…
Kızılcahamam is a town and district of Ankara Province in the Central Anatolia region of Turkey.
Türkmenbaba Mountains are a mountain complex located in northwestern Turkey and in Eskişehir Province.
Soğuksu National Park is a national park in central Anatolia, Turkey and it is located in the Kızılcahamam district of Ankara Province.