Parts of a Vulture

For those of you who are keen to learn about the different parts of a vulture, we have a series of labelled photos for you, to keep it interesting.  This is of course not every part of a vulture, but gives you a good idea of the different flight feathers etc.

Please feel free to email should you have any queries, or comment on the post and we will get back to you as quickly as possible with answers.

Vulture Head Anatomy
Vulture Head Anatomy


Overview of Anatomy of a Vulture
Overview of Anatomy of a Vulture


Vulture Foot Anatomy
Vulture Foot Anatomy

How do vultures fly so high and survive?

Cape Vulture - Vulture Restaurant @ VulPro - Photo Copyright Mandy Schrode
Cape Vulture – Vulture Restaurant @ VulPro – Photo Copyright Mandy Schroder

Vultures are amazing birds that can soar and glide for great distances, they have adapted over time to allow them to fly at great altitudes where oxygen is in short supply.

Mechanics of flight

Whether you are flying in an airplane or a vulture gliding across the sky, flying remains a balance between two sets of forces – “lift and weight” and “thrust and drag”. Lift is created by the flow of air over the wings and weight is created as a result of gravity.  Vulture’s wings are concave on their underside and convex on the upper surface, because of this shape the air that travels over the wing has a greater distance to travel resulting in it speeding up, this causes the pressure to drop (this is because the same amount of air is exerting its pressure over a larger area above the wing than below it.  This creates “lift” or sucks the wing up.

At the same time the exact opposite is happening on the underside of the wing, the air slows down, creates more pressure and “pushes” the wing up. This push and pull effect happens the most along the thin trailing (back) edge of the wing and causes a spiralling vortex (whirling mass) of air disturbance at the wing tip which increases the drag.

Gliding & Soaring

Vultures are masters at soaring and gliding, hanging in the air without having to flap their wings.   Their wings are large, ideal for gliding, but very hard work to flap for flight.  Soaring means that vultures don’t lose height and often climb higher in altitude by using no energy of their own – instead using the thermals (rising masses of warm air), obstruction currents which are produced when wind currents hit mountains or tall buildings cause the air to rise lifting vultures to higher altitudes.  Vultures have large, broad wings and their proportion of bodyweight to wing size is low, making them the perfect gliders and soarers.

Brain straining fact:

 “Aerodynamic properties are measured by aspect ratio, which is the ratio of wing length divided by wing breadth. Long wings are better for gliding but harder to flap quickly and are therefore not much good at quick acceleration.  Wing loading is the relationship between total body-mass measured in grams versus total wing area measured in square centimetres.” (

Feathers for Temperatures

Cape Vulture - back feathers up close
Cape Vulture – back feathers up close

At the higher altitudes, temperatures can drop to -60°C, to survive this high fliers have developed a layer of soft down feathers that act as insulation – exactly why we use down duvets in winter.  Special feathers called “Contour feathers” cover the body, streamlining it and effectively reduce the drag.  “Remiges” are primary feathers, found on the wings they help with flight and provide wing shape.  “Rectrices” are tail feathers which stretch sideways making the tail work like a rudder for turning and balancing.

Bullet shaped bodies

The vulture’s body shape is suited to flight with the centre of gravity being situated slightly below and behind the wings, the placement of the centre of gravity helps with better balance in flight.  Added to the position of the centre of gravity a large number of the organs and large muscles are found near the centre of gravity.


A vulture’s wings are the equivalent of our forelimbs or arms, they attach to the body closer to the vulture’s centre of gravity.  The “hand” bones are small, fused, flattened and are specially adapted to manipulate the flight feathers and “feel” the air for riding thermals.

Bare Bones

Pneumatization means “The development of air cells or cavities, such as those of the mastoid and ethmoidal bones.” (

Evolution has allowed vultures to adapt for flying by reducing their weight by:

  • Fusion of some bones
  • Removal of unnecessary ones
  • Pneumatisation of bones
  • Large bones are often connected to respiratory system air sacs.

To ensure that their bones remain strong they have internal truss like reinforcing.  Fusion of certain bones lightens the skeleton while increasing its strength.   An important adaptation is the fusion of the caudal (tail) bones into what is called a pygostyle(the Pope’s Nose on a chicken).  This pygostyle supports the tail feathers, with the tail working as a rudder it needs to remain strong.

Vultures also have no teeth, having evolved with a beak which is lighter.  Bird’s ribs are stronger than ours as they have hooked boney extensions (uncinate processes) which overlap with the rib behind them providing extra strength and stability.

A vulture’s skull is made up thin hollow bones making it very light

Height Records

  • Andean Condor 15 000feet
  • White Stork 16 000 feet
  • Bar-tailed Godwit – 20000 feet
  • Mallard – 21000 feet
  • Bearded Vulture – 24000 feet
  • Alpine Chough – 26500 feet
  • Whooper Swan – 27000 feet
  • Bar-headed Goose – 29000 feet
  • Common Crane – 33000 feet
  • Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture – 37000 feet [11,274 m when a Ruppell’s griffo collided into a commercial airline over western Africa (Martin, 1987)]


Respiratory System

High Flyers counteract the reduced oxygen levels by having an amazing lung respiratory system, which uses the smallest amount of oxygen available to its full effect.  So why do vultures fly so high… to use the natural jet streams found at higher altitudes, allowing them to cover massive distances with little effort.

A vulture’s respiratory system is proportionately larger than ours is.  Their lungs are smaller and less flexible than ours are as well as being connected with a network of large thin walled air sacs in the body.  The air sacs are also interconnected with the air spaces in the bones.  Vultures like most birds have a unidirectional method of breathing, this means that fully oxygenated air is always entering the lungs unlike us where we breathe into and out of our lungs, resulting in fresh air mixing with old air.

Respiration-bird-mammal-insectAnimated gif used with permission of and created by Eleanor Lutz (Eleanor’s website:

Heart & Blood

A vulture’s heart is large and powerful as well as being similar to ours by having 4 chambers.  The Bird’s heart is large, powerful, four-chambered and of the same basic design as that of a mammal. The vulture’s circulatory system is like its respiratory system in that the blood is separated into oxygenated and de-oxygenated, making them well equipped to handle their high flying.  They also have higher blood pressure and blood glucose levels than ours.


Birds have high metabolism and are able to generate and regulate their body temperature (endothermy) for rapid availability of power and maintenance of high body temp at cold altitudes.

Sabi Sabi Wild Facts: Vultures

Cody’s Mazda Advert – “I believe i can fly”

Cody’s Mazda advert was incredibly popular on television, highlighting the then Mazda Wildlife Fund’s work.


Sizzle our Electric Fence Vulture

ElectricityWarningSizzle (Tag B432) a Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) was rescued on the 10th of November 2010 in the Damdoryn area of Brits in the North West Province, South Africa.  Sizzle had decided to go through a property’s electric fence and in trying to get through had burnt his neck severely.  Ordinarily an electric fence has up to 6000 volts running through it; this is what is legally acceptable in South Africa.  Kerri has rescued many vultures stuck in electric fences and never before or since seen the kind of burns that Sizzle experienced – leading her to believe that the voltage on that particular fence was much higher.

On initial inspection, Sizzle had a few singed neck feathers as would normally be expected from an experience like this.  Then he started to breathe strangely, making a horrible gargling sound in his throat, not understanding what was causing the problem, he was rushed through to the Exotic Animal Clinic at Onderstepoort.

Sizzle was anaesthetised and the vet checked inside his mouth, normally an endoscope would be used to examine all the tissue in Sizzle’s throat, in this case, his throat was so swollen that the vet couldn’t get the endoscope down his throat.  Using long thin forceps, the vet was able to ascertain that there was necrotic burnt tissue inside Sizzle’s throat, blocking his trachea (air passage).  Not only was this excruciatingly painful, threatened Sizzle’s ability to breathe, the risk of infection from dead and dying tissue all of which would have killed Sizzle without veterinary intervention.

Poor Sizzle had to be anaesthetised and treated every third day for the next few weeks – this meant that the vet had to scrape and remove all of the dead tissue in Sizzle’s trachea and oesophagus.  After that he was treated once a week until he had healthy tissue left in his trachea and oesophagus.

He was kept with Puff Adder (Read Puff Adder’s Story) for few weeks to make sure that he was strong enough to survive after being released and could eat and breathe with no issues.

Electric Fences

South Africa is a country with a high crime rate and electric fences are the go to first line of defence against intruders.  What we often forget about are the wildlife who have to move in and out of our gardens in order to survive.  Snakes, mice, chameleons, hedgehogs, large insects and birds are all at risk of electrocution if the fence is not legally compliant.  Pets are also at risk should a dog get stuck under an electric fence that isn’t legally compliant.

Whilst we all need to remain safe and secure in our houses, please remember that we need to keep our wildlife safe as well.  Sizzle is the perfect ambassador for the implications of illegally designed security measures.  He was released with Puff Adder on the 19th of December 2010.

Release Puff Adder and Sizzle
Release Puff Adder and Sizzle

Electrical Burns

Familiarise yourself with what to do should a person or animal be stuck in your fence:

  • Turn the fence off or move the animal away from the fence using a dry, non-conducting object made of cardboard, rubber or wood.
  • Know how to perform CPR on animals, especially if you really love your dogs and cats
  • Keep the animal warm as shock can cause a significant drop in body temperature.
  • If clean gauze or a sterile dressing is available then cover any external burns. Do not use cotton wool or material with fibres as they will stick in the wounds.
  • Get the animal to a vet immediately, many electrical burns are worse on the inside than you would expect from the external signs on their body.
  • Make sure that your electric fence is legally compliant with current legislation

“Puff Adder” Vulture (Tag B430)– first vulture in the world to be treated with snake anti – venom

Puff Adder starting to swell
Puff Adder starting to swell

Puff Adder a Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres) as he became affectionately known arrived at VulPro on the 5th of November 2010.  He was a grounded fledgling that had got himself into trouble due to bad weather.  This happens so often with young fledgling vultures, gardens, swimming pools, dogs and electric fences can all cause huge problems for young, inexperienced vultures.  They end up on the ground without enough space or possibly strength to take off again, left alone they die.

VulPro rushed out and rescued him, taking him back to VulPro to be fattened up a bit and grow stronger, before being tagged and released. “Puff Adder” had been at VulPro a couple of weeks when on the 27th of November 2010, Kerri arrived back at VulPro with an electrocuted vulture (Read Sizzle’s story here) to find Puff Adder screaming in agony and running backwards in his enclosure.

He was quickly caught and inspected, with a single puncture wound being discovered on his neck.  Kerri and her team suspected a snake bite, although the snake was never seen and apart from screaming from shock and / or pain, Puff Adder showed no other symptoms yet.

Kerri rushed Puff Adder to the Exotic Animal Clinic at Onderstepoort to be treated by Dr Francois Le Grange.  By now Puff Adder had started to swell, a huge concern was that his throat would swell so much that he wouldn’t be able to breathe.  Oxygen was administered and Puff Adder was also put on a drip.

Interesting Fact:

The Puff Adder (Bitus arietans) is responsible for causing the most snakebite fatalities in Africa owing to various factors, such as its wide distribution, frequent occurrence in highly populated regions, and aggressive disposition.  It is a sluggish snake that relies on camouflage for protection, most bites occur because the snake is stepped on.  The Puff Adder bite is severely cytotoxic (kills cells) and is responsible for severe pain and swelling leading to tissue necrosis.

Puff Adder
Puff Adder

After a lot of careful thought, it was decided to treat Puff Adder with anti-venom.  This had never before been done with a vulture, and both Kerri and Dr Francois Le Grange had no idea whether it would help or hurt Puff Adder, they just knew that they had to do something or he would die.  His symptoms were worsening and not being able to breathe was a very real problem.

Two vials of anti-venom were administered to Puff Adder and he thrived! There was no tissue necrosis (dead tissue), within a week the swelling started to go down.

Puff Adder on a drip
Puff Adder on a drip

Puff Adder was in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at Onderstepoort on a drip for 3 days, to make sure that he was properly hydrated, he then returned to VulPro and was kept in a crate (specialised vulture transport crates) for a few days on a drip to make 100% sure that he was healthy.

One month later, Puff Adder was healthy enough to be tagged and released.  On the 16th of July 2011, Puff adder was resighted feeding on a carcass at Shelanti Game Reserve.  This is the reason that it is so wonderful when people share their resightings of tagged vultures with us.  We add the sightings to our database and it allows us to track these vultures.  We haven’t had any resightings since then, but we are thrilled with the confirmation that Puff Adder was alive a year after his ordeal.

Why is Puff Adder’s story so important?

Living in Africa especially on plots, farm land or in the bush makes sure that wild life becomes a factor in your life – good or bad!  We recommend that you should be aware of and have basic knowledge about the snakes that reside in your area.  We don’t support killing them; rather relocate to a place where human interaction is limited.

It is important for you to know, how poisonous they are, what type of venom they have ie what the symptoms are and how to treat a snake bite.  This is important not only for you and your friends and family but for your pets and livestock as well.  Kerri and Dr Le Grange ensured that Puff Adder experienced minimal damage from the Puff Adder bite because he was treated so quickly.  Left untreated for longer because of the position of the bite it is almost certain that Puff Adder would have died.

Bee Sting our vulture with 9 lives! – Bee Sting’s Story Part Five

The wounds on Bee Sting's wing
The wounds on Bee Sting’s wing

After Bee Sting’s visit at Millstream Primary School and rescue by VulPro, she spent some time at VulPro before being released again.  We all gave a big sigh of relief hoping that Bee Sting would now keep her life a little simpler and give us fewer grey hairs.  Sadly this hasn’t been the case; about 10 days ago we had to fetch Bee Sting from Caribbean Beach in Hartbeespoort, she was brought back to VulPro and initially we didn’t realise what had happened to her.  She was able to fly to the top of the 9m enclosure and was her usual cheeky self, our plans were to let her settle again, make sure that she was well fed and then re-release her.  Bee Sting has an incredibly strong and stubborn personality which had helped save her life when she was stung by over 220 bees Bee Sting’s Story Part One, little did we know that her will to live had been tested again.

On the 26th of June, we noticed some blood on Bee Sting from her right wing, our vultures’ health is always very important, so we caught Bee Sting to find out what the injury is.  Imagine our horror when we discovered a burnt area on her right wing and some singed feathers – the only conclusion is a power line electrocution, which this miracle vulture survived.

When we collected Bee Sting she was on the ground in close proximity to a power line but because she showed no sign of injury and was able to fly, we didn’t realise that she had in fact been electrocuted and without another one of her “extra lives” would have been found dead.   Read about power lines here.

Getting rid of burnt and dead skin
Getting rid of burnt and dead skin

Bee Sting’s electrical burn was treated and healing well, until the itching and irritation of the healing process caused Bee Sting to “help” her healing process a little too much and she caused some new wounds.  This is very similar to when we have a cut or graze that is healing and we end up scratching it until it is sore or bleeding because the itching is driving us crazy.  The difference is we can be told to leave it alone and why, vultures don’t understand that rubbing and scratching their injuries only makes it worse.

Dr Dorianne Elliot treating Bee Sting at the Exotic Bird and Animal Clinic in South Africa
Dr Dorianne Elliot treating Bee Sting at the Exotic Bird and Animal Clinic in South Africa

Bee Sting was rushed to Dr Dorianne Elliot at the Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital at Onderstepoort, North of Pretoria for treatment and to try and save her wing.  Bee Sting has a hole right through the joint of her wing and shows some signs of infection, the tendons and ligaments are exposed and she has torn the follicle capsule on one of her primary wing feathers.  The original burns are healthy and very close to fully healed.  To prevent Bee Sting from “helping” heal her injuries, the innovative Dr Elliot devised a cap of fibreglass cast to stop Bee Sting from picking at the wounds as they continue healing.

Soft bandage padding
Soft bandage padding

The wounds were flushed and treated with an anti-bacterial ointment and then covered with a bandage and the fibreglass cap was placed over the bandage.

Great care has to be taken to protect the blood supply to a vulture’s wings as the blood vessels are very close to the skin with very little protection.  As far as we are aware a “cap” like this has never been used on a vulture before, so our brave, tough and cat-like

Bee Sting with her fibreglass "wing cap"
Bee Sting with her fibreglass “wing cap”

Bee Sting is proving to be a trailblazer all over again.

In spite of Bee Sting appearing to have 9 lives, we can’t risk her life.  This miracle vulture is going to live out her days in our important captive breeding programme run at VulPro.  The wild Cape Vulture numbers are so low, that literally every vulture counts to save the species.  At VulPro, Bee Sting can continue to supplement wild populations with her chicks and her legacy will live on.

If anyone would like to support Bee Sting, they will be able to adopt her by contacting either Kerri Wolter or Mandy Schroder to arrange this.

Bee Sting Adoption appeal

We would also like to invite you to come and visit Bee Sting and our other vultures at the centre, experience first-hand how important our work is, but most importantly come and see how special, intelligent and what characters our vultures are.

Bee Sting’s Story – Part Four- “Bee Sting’s Treatment Diary”

Bee Sting The ActionsDay OneBird and Exptic Animal Hospital Logo

More than 220 bee stings were removed from a very stressed and sore Bee Sting.  She was treated with an anti-inflammatory, pain medication and a Vit B Complex injection, as well as an anti-histamine and a drip for fluid intake.

Day Two

Bee Sting’s face was very swollen, with upper respiratory noises, although she was standing up and able to move around.  She was also treated with the same drugs as Day One and an antibiotic was added to fight any infection.

Day Three

Bee Sting’s face and neck were even more swollen although her breathing had improved, she was also more alert.  She was treated with pain medication, antibiotics, and medicine to keep her digestive tract functioning properly as well as a drip for fluid intake.

Day Four

Bee Sting was starting to make her feelings known about being treated, she was very strong and biting when we approached her.  Her face was still swollen but she was eating.  She was treated with pain medication; antibiotics and medicine to keep her gut functioning as well as a drip to manage her fluid levels.

Day Five

We all got really worried, Bee Sting’s Blood pressure dropped and she was less responsive to us.  Her tests showed that while her Uric Acid and Bile levels were normal, her Haematocrit (the ratio of the volume of red blood cells to the total volume of blood) was decreased, her monocytes (white blood cells) were greatly increased showing inflammation.  Bee Sting was treated with the same medication as on the previous days.

Bee Sting Day Seven @ VulPro
Bee Sting Day Seven @ VulPro

Day Six

A huge part of saving wild animals that are being treated is juggling their emotional and psychological well-being as well as their physical health.  Bee Sting was showing signs of depression and because of this VulPro wanted to take her home; to see other vultures and help stimulate normal behaviour.  Bee Sting was treated with a drip, antibiotics and pain killers.

Day 7

Bee Sting was back at VulPro, as hoped being around other vultures, seemed to have improved her mood.  She was interested in food and was interacting with the other vultures.

Bee Sting at VulPro day 7
Bee Sting at VulPro day 7

Day 34

Bee Sting was seen to have severe fly strike, where flies have laid eggs in the wound and there are maggots in the wound.  Maggots are good at eating all the rotting or dead tissue, but dangerous because they will eat all the healthy tissue too and can result in death of an animal.

Granulation Tissue on Bee Sting Day 34
Granulation Tissue on Bee Sting Day 34are maggots in the wound.  Maggots are good at eating all the rotting or dead tissue, but dangerous because they will eat all the healthy tissue too and can result in death of an animal.

Bee Sting’s wounds showed granulation tissue on her left cheek and her entire skull was covered in hard dead (necrotic) tissue.  Her right cheek had skin sloughing off it with dead tissue and her jaw bone was exposed.

Bee Sting with Fly Strike, her skin is sloughing off, there is necrotic tissue and the Maxillary bone is exposed
Bee Sting with Fly Strike, her skin is sloughing off, there is necrotic tissue and the
Maxillary bone is exposed

Bee Sting was treated by manually removing all the maggots, for her safety not even one could be left behind.  The wounds were cleaned and she was treated with a dewormer  called Ivermectin, which would kill any maggots that may have been missed.  As a precaution, Bee Sting was hospitalised again and kept in a fly proof room because it was mid-summer and the peak of South Africa’s fly season.

Day 35

We were so relieved to see that Bee Sting was doing well, even though her skull was still covered in dead tissue; she showed signs of healthy granulation tissue.  Her right eye was working properly, which would be vital to her ability to survive out in the wild. Cape Vultures rely on their sight to identify their food sources – being able to see up to 6.5km their eyesight is phenomenal.

Day 36

Bee Sting with F10 Cream covering her wounds
Bee Sting with F10 Cream covering her wounds

We discovered dead skin over Bee Sting’s crop although the crop itself was not damaged.  The dead tissue on her face was removed, healthy granulation tissue was found and she was treated with F10 Cream.  The good news was that Bee Sting was eating well, which was helping her to heal and stay strong.


Vulture hero - Bee Sting @ VulPro
Vulture hero – Bee Sting @ VulPro


Day 37

F10 Wound Spray was sprayed over Bee Sting’s wounds and she was put in the outside aviaries and seemed to be happier in herself.

Day 38

A Cape Vulture’s Tear Duct (Lachrymal duct) runs similarly to ours, Bee Sting’s ended up opening onto her face because of all the dead

Bee Sting Lachrymal duct repair
Bee Sting Lachrymal duct repair

and damaged tissue and skin.  It was repaired by surgically placing a feeding tube from where the tear duct opens in the inner eye to the choana (An opening at the back of the nasal passage (there is a left and a right side) that empties into the space behind the nose called the nasopharynx).  Wound granulation tissue (healing tissue) from the surrounding areas was placed over the feeding tube to create a new tear duct.   The area was also partially covered with a skin graft called a pedicle flap and the rest of the wound was covered with a dressing called Granuflex.

Day 60

Johannesburg Eye Hospital
Johannesburg Eye Hospital

Bee Sting had a visit from Dr Isaac Venter from the Johannesburg Animal Eye Hospital, who looked at her right eye to establish how well it was working.  We were very relieved to hear that Bee Sting still had vision in her right eye and that no surgery was required.  Although she had lost a small amount of peripheral vision, it would not affect her ability to live wild.

Bee Sting post release at VulPro
Bee Sting post release at VulPro

Bee Sting Flies Free

1st February 2015, Bee Sting is released at VulPro, making Bee Sting truly one of our miracle vultures.  For a long time we weren’t sure that she would make it and to have her recover well enough to fly free and live wild again is a very special feeling.

Dr Francois Le Grange is open to being contacted should anyone require assistance of this nature when treating vultures, he may be emailed at: