Understanding a Vulture’s Senses

Vultures like all birds depend on their senses for survival, their senses have adapted to give them the best chance to thrive and survive.

Cape Vulture flaring wing tips for landing. Photo Mandy Schroder
Cape Vulture flaring wing tips for landing. Photo Mandy Schroder

Bird brains or bird sense?
Birds have the same senses we do – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. Theirs are specialised and more developed to help them survive. The importance of certain senses varies from species to species. Vultures have a particularly well developed sense of sight and some a sense of smell.

Cape Vulture eye. Photo Kerri Wolter
Cape Vulture eye. Photo Kerri Wolter

All the better to see you with!
A vulture’s eyesight is critical to it finding food, evading predators and avoiding hazards like power lines. Vultures have a thicker retina than people and their eyes are larger in proportion to their head size. They also have a higher density of cones and rods packed into the retina, giving them far superior vision to us.
They see movement and detail much better than we do, and their eyes are set further apart on their head’s giving them a wilder field of view.
Because their eyes are so important, they have a nictitating membrane (an inner eyelid) that helps to protect their eyes and cleans them often.

Hearing a pin drop!
The ears are located slightly behind and below the eyes, and are covered with soft feathers called auriculars – for protection.
Vultures may not sing, but they hold a conversation all of their own. Using noises like hissing, grumbling and squawking at each other they hold some very funny conversations at our vulture restaurant.

Cape Vulture, wingspan and feathers. Photo Mandy Schroder
Cape Vulture, wingspan and feathers. Photo Mandy Schroder

Tender Touch!
Touch or feel, is vital for flight. They are incredibly sensitive to changes in air temperature, pressure and wind speed. The sensations are transmitted down the feathers to the nerves in the skin.
They have fewer nerves in their legs and feet, this allows them to perch or stand on hotter or colder surfaces.

Taste – Smaak so lekker!
Birds do have a sense of taste, but it is not well refined. Depending on the species they have less than 50 or up to about 500 taste buds. (Humans have 9000 – 10 000 taste buds)

Vultures' sense of smell is nowhere near as powerful as their eyesight. Photo Mandy Schroder
Vultures’ sense of smell is nowhere near as powerful as their eyesight. Photo Mandy Schroder

Nose knows best!
Birds in general don’t have a wonderful sense of smell; some Vultures however have a better developed sense of smell than others. Sight is still the most important of the 5 senses.

Why a Vulture’s senses matter?
Food has become really scarce for them, due to so many areas now being developed and becoming highly populated. Vulture restaurants help, and the vultures quickly learn where there is a reliable food source and fly great distances to get to it.

Power lines are a huge threat to vultures; the thin top wire is not visible to them. If “bird flappers” are placed on the top wire, then the vultures’ superior eyesight helps them avoid a dangerous accident.

They communicate with each other, with their own form of language, a warning to stay away from a piece of food, or a parent talking to a chick, it all aids their survival.

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