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Vultures in Love

Air Date: Week of

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Two vultures preen each other. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender)

Vultures are not exactly the most charismatic or cuddly of animals but they do have their charm, observes Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender. In East Africa, he watches a mated pair of vultures preening each other with ground termites to keep parasites at bay.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Vultures are not exactly the most charismatic or cuddly of animals but they do have their charm observes Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender. In East Africa, he watched a mated pair of vultures preening each other with ground termites to keep parasites at bay.

"Vultures in Love"
White-backed Vulture
Near the Sekenani River, Maasai Mara


Author's Note

Some birds have an interesting use for ants or more likely, the formic acid ants themselves use as a defense. They sit on an ant hill with feathers spread and presumably the ants feast on the parasites feasting on the bird. Sometimes birds crush the ants onto their feathers and skin using the formic acid directly. Both practices are called anting. Another method for removing parasites is called allopreening, where one bird preens the feathers of another. Recorded here is an instance of African white-backed vultures combining both strategies – allopreening and anting - and not with ants but termites.


LENDER: Out on the open plain, two vultures stand side by side. The day is coming to an end (on at the equator night comes like a slammed door. Atop an acacia tree they would be out of harm’s way. Yet they remain. One of the vultures is on a small bare hummock that mounds up out of the close-cropped grass. The other bends down, and takes something from the base of the mound with the tip of his beak. The vulture on her slight perch does the same:

Bend.

Pick.

Up again.

Down again.

Now him…

Now her…

Now both of them.

Then:

Stropping brushing stroking each other with their beaks, rapid, intent, along the check, deep between the shoulders, burying their faces in the collar that forms a ruff about each other’s throats –

– rubbing something in.

The thing that each has retrieved from the mound?

There.

There it is.

Inside her open mouth.


Two vultures preen each other to keep parasites at bay. (Photo: © Mark Seth Lender))

The creamy white body of termite, bounced against the hard palate, the black tongue lifting pressing crushing. He has one also. And using their beaks like burnishing tools they spread the masticated stuff deep inside the many-layered coats of each other’s feathers.

And stop.

And look into each other’s jet black eyes.

Their mouths open, barely, as if speaking, as if his murmurings only for her, hers meant only for him.

And start again:

Combing roaming clutching.

Necks entwined.

Beaks touching.

And touching.

The light fails but they never will.

Vultures, in Love!

CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence, Mark Seth Lender

 

Links

Find the corresponding Field Note for this essay

More from Mark Seth Lender

Special thanks to Destination Wildlife

 

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