[order] Falconiformes | [family] Accipitridae | [latin] Torgos tracheliotus | [UK] Lappet-faced Vulture | [FR] Vautour oricou | [DE] Ohrengeier | [ES] Buitre Orejudo | [IT] Avvoltoio orecchiuto | [NL] Oorgier

Oorgier determination

copyright: Peter van Dam

The species is often treated as monotypic, though sometimes nubicus, the north-east African population, is treated as a separate race for having a browner plumage, partly brownish thighs, pale head and less developed lappets. However, relatively recent studies have shown that the Arabian populations are more distinct indicating that it is best to treat the species as two races, with nubicus representing a somewhat intermediate stage in a cline of decreasing colour and contrast from south to northeast. The African race, A. t. tracheliotus, is very black, with white thighs and patagial line, bald red head, large lappets and yellow (in south) or black bill. A. t. negevensis, the race from the north-eastern extreme of the species range, is altogether browner, including partly brown thighs and brown patagial line, downy greyish and pink head, blackish bill which makes it comparable to immature stage in sub-Saharan Africa. The difference between the two subspecies appears to be more distinct in flight making their identification from below easier. The southern and eastern tracheliotus has a strikingly black and white appearance while negevensis is uniformly blackish brown with only some individuals showing white markings on the underwing. However, birds from Israel including those that dispersed from Saudi Arabia, have quite large amount of pure white feathers on the back.

The species typically inhabits dry savannah, thorn bushes, arid plains, desert habitats with scattered trees in wadis and open mountain slopes with varying altitude ranging from sea level up to 4,500 m. Although it is rarely seen foraging either in dense woodlands or disturbed (e.g. roadsides) habitats, the species prefers undisturbed open country with some trees, where there is little or no grass. Trees are the most important components of the species’ habitat, because they are needed for roosting and nesting. Birds almost exclusively roost on trees, and even those that linger at a waterhole until late in the afternoon never spend the night on the ground. Nests are also built on top of high trees with special preference for thorny species of Acacia, Balanites and Terminalia. Other tree types like broad-leaved figs and cedar are sometimes used.

Torgos tracheliotus breeds in Egypt, Senegal, Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Swaziland, Saudi Arabia (an increasing population, in excess of 500 individuals), United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen and possibly Libya. The species also occurs in The Gambia, northern Guinea, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Central African Republic and southern Angola. It is no longer thought to breed in Côte d'Ivoire. It has been extinct in Algeria and Tunisia since the 1930s, and now only small populations remain in southern Egypt, and Mauritania. The last records from Morocco concerned two birds in 1972. It is considered likely to be extinct in Western Sahara, as it has not been recorded there since 1955. In Nigeria, there has been a major decline since the late 1970s and it may now have been extirpated. It probably previously bred in Jordan, and is considered extinct in Israel, where three birds remained until 1994. The species was not recorded during surveys in 2004 in northern Mali and Niger along the same transects that yielded 96 birds in 1971-1973. The combination of these results with comparable transect surveys from Burkina Faso indicate a decline in abundance of c.97% in rural areas and c.39% in national parks between 1969-1973 and 2003-2004. It is suffering a slow decline in southern Africa, although the population in central Mozambique is probably stable. There are possibly 1,000 pairs (almost 3,000 individuals) in southern Africa, at least the same in east and north-east Africa, and possibly only c.500 pairs in West Africa and the Sahara, giving a total rough estimate of the African population of at least 8,000 individuals.

It arrives at carcasses usually later than other vultures, but at times it is the first to break in to a carcass using heavy sideways blows with its powerful bill. A bird does not start to feed immediately on arrival at a carcass preferring to stand around for much of the time before suddenly plunging itself in to the swarm of other vulture species that it scatters fiercely. Although it can dominate all other species, it can readily be robbed by, for instance, jackals. Unless it is very hungry, the Lappet-faced Vulture seldom joins a struggling throng of foraging griffons and when it does, it easily forces its way in to get access to the food. When it is feeding alone its powerful head and bill enables it to eat tough sinews, dry skin and small bones not utilized by griffons. Analysis of pellet remains collected from nests have shown that most of the food that was brought to the nestling came from small animals. This suggests that predation might also be a foraging strategy adopted by the species.

This species is classified as Vulnerable since only a small, declining population remains, owing primarily to poisoning and persecution, as well as ecosystem alterations. [conservation status from birdlife.org]

The Lappet-faced Vulture builds huge flat nests that are completely open to the sun placing them mostly on top of Acacia trees at any height from 3 to 15 m. If measured at the rim, the dimension between two diametric outermost points of a nest is 120-220 cm and this can reach up to 300 cm in some instances. The vertical thickness of a nest is 30-100 cm, but it gets thinner at the centre where there is a shallow bottom depression with a crosswise breadth of 100 cm. A bird builds its nest from sticks, lining the inside part with dry grass before carpeting it with hair and skin from regurgitated pellets. Pairs often build only one nest, but it is also normal to have 1-3 nests that are used alternately. A nest is used year after year, often for many years, unless the foundation on which it was built is unstable, in which case it could collapse and then be deserted. In some cases branches growing around a nest may make it inaccessible for pairs, instigating desertion. The birds repair an old nest by placing new sticks round the rim and relining it with fresh grass in courtship periods. One or both birds usually roost in or beside a nest, sometimes for as long as the whole year and such a habit is practised more regularly with the approach of the laying date.
The normal clutch is one egg, (although rarely at times birds lay two eggs) and spend 54-56 days incubating it. Before laying, the females spend some time in an incubation posture. Although both sexes participate in the incubation process, the proportion of time that each of them spend for this purpose is not yet determined. After incubation, the egg hatches, the chick taking 125-135 days to fledge successfully. A complete nesting cycle, that starts with the laying of an egg, and culminates with the first flight of a fledged chick, therefore takes c. 185 days. Remarkably though, there is a record of a pair of Lappet-faced Vultures hatching and rearing a White-headed Vulture in the wild.

The species is usually sedentary but adults are nomadic at times. There are some records of dispersal in Chad and West Africa during the rainy season that lasts between June and September. The species traverses considerable distances while foraging, as studies on Israeli populations have shown that birds feed in areas located more than 150 km north of their breeding area. The recovery of colour-ringed birds in the Namibia desert at distances of 120-700 km and also over 800 km from northeast South Africa to Zambia indicate that immature birds are also dispersive. Vagrants were also recorded in the last 50 years in countries like Morocco, southern Libya, Jordan, northern Israel (after their extinction from Israel, thus the birds could have most likely come from Saudi Arabia) and Spain.