How do vultures learn to fly?

Cape Vulture chick flapping wings on the nest ledge
Cape Vulture chick flapping wings on the nest ledge

Vultures are big heavy birds that can look quite comical with their funny hopping walk on the ground.   Watch them in the air and it is a completely different picture, graceful, powerful and free they can soar and glide for hours as they ride the thermals searching for food.  Vultures are specially built to soar beautifully, their wings are huge and they have short tails.

The Cape Vulture nests on rocky ledges and cliff faces in a nest made of grass and sticks.  Vulture chicks are often seen practicing flapping their wings while they are on their nest ledges, sometimes flapping so hard that they lift off the ledge a little bit.  When the wind picks up they open their wings to feel the wind through them – this may be a way of learning how to feel and use the wind when they do fly.

Watching vultures coming in to land at VulPro’s restaurant, you start to appreciate what skilled flyers they are.  Watching their wing feathers flare on one side while the curve the wing more on the other to change direction, slowing right down to check their specific landing spot or changing their minds and soaring off again.

Dating on the Fly

A vulture’s version of dating is soaring around each other in the sky, with the male behaving like a fighter pilot, showing off his skills by almost touching the female’s wing tip as he flies.  Vultures are very sociable in their colonies, but when it comes to pairing up and breeding, they mate for life.

Fledging

Vulture chicks fledge, or take their first flight, at around 140 days after hatching.  They are the same size as their parents but not quite as heavy and they have their full feathers just their colouring is different showing their youth.

Nature vs Nurture

Birds are born with the instinct to fly; they do still have to learn the mechanics of it though, a little like our parents helping us learn to walk.

It is thought that the vulture chicks build their bravery, strength and muscle development with their wing flapping on the ledge to be able to take the first leap.  Relatively speaking, it appears that the leap and subsequent gliding is easy for them, the difficulty and challenge occurs when they need to get back onto the cliff.  This takes more, skill maneuverability and stamina, and is often the reason that we find so many grounded young fledglings, a bit like us learning to drive, they have the forwards part down pat, but the parking skills are sadly lacking.

There are also reports of parents who” kick” the fledgling out of the nest; this may involve stopping feeding the chick or not allowing the chick to roost on their ledge as well as the literal kick out the nest.  This is nature’s way of making sure that the parents are able to hatch their next egg and raise the next chick. Only with practice do they learn the ropes and develop the muscles necessary to flap their wings to their fullest potential.

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