Raptor Friday: Long Billed / Indian Vulture.

Vultures are the most misunderstood of birds despite the fact that Hindu mythology associates them with virtue rather than evil. In the last decade, our callousness has led to a huge decline in their numbers. But it isn't too late, we think...

Vultures are not really everybody's favourite birds. Traditionally, they have been associated with war, death and doom. Pathetic imitations of vulture calls have been used in popular cinema to signal the entry of villains, possibly to convey the impression that "now the vultures shall feed." Little do we realise that these birds face a fragile future, driven as they are to the verge of extinction.

I had heard a lot about Indian Vultures (Gyps indicus) and one fine morning I drove to Ramanagaram, near Bangalore, to see them. My first sighting was of a bird mobbed by crows flying away from one of the huge monoliths on which they typically nest.
An Indian vulture all hunched up, perhaps mulling over the future? Don't miss the "vulture paint" on the rock ledge
As my friend and I walked beside the rock trying to spot the birds I noticed some construction activity (later I learned a resort was being built nearby). The much talked about 'Sholay' village is also being planned near this place as the movie was shot here in the 1970s. It was evident that the activity due to resort construction has disturbed the vultures roosting there. Where there used to be about 20 vultures I couldn't spot even one. Looking around I finally saw two birds perched on a ledge a fair distance apart.
The desolate landscape adds to the melancholy mood
The ledge in itself was ornately decorated with "vulture paint" -- stripes of white formed by the birds' droppings over time. We waited till past 8 am, when we assumed the thermals would become stronger. Precisely at 8:15, the vultures took off one by one. Spreading their thick wings they lifted off with seemingly impossible ease, considering their bulk.

A vulture soaring inspires awe
The Long-billed Vulture is smaller and less heavily built than the Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus), and its head and neck are darker, and the beak paler, in comparison. Also, the lack of white tips to the median coverts is one way to identify them.

Vultures, hardy birds that thrived on carrion, have been driven to the verge of extinction: nearly 99% of the population has been wiped out due to the use of Diclofenac, a veterinary drug administered to livestock. Vultures that feed on the carcasses would die of renal failure brought about by the drug. Though Diclofenac has been banned, farmers still have access to variants of the drug used for humans and hoarded stock. 

The Indian Vulture is no phoenix but let's hope, pray and spread awareness so that it may rise again.

Text and photos: Sandeep Somasekharan
See our other posts on vultures and Diclofenac