Palm-Nut Vulture: The Ultimate Guide

The Palm-Nut vulture (Gypohierax angolensis), also known as the vulturine fish eagle, is a large-sized bird of prey in the Accipitridae family.

This family also includes a wide range of other diurnal raptors such as buzzards, vultures, eagles, kites, and harriers. However, the palm-nut vulture is the only member of the genus Gypohierax.

Distantly related to the New World vultures who sit in the separate family of the Cathartidae, the palm-nut bird of prey is actually an Old World vulture. 

Breeding in forests and savannahs across the breadth of sub-Saharan Africa, these raptors usually stay near water. Interestingly, their range seems to correspond with Raffia and oil palms. 

Somewhat approachable, like the majority of African vultures, the palm-nut can be seen on close to an array of habitats from large lawns within tourist regions and personal large grounds of homes in The Gambia.

To find out more about these fascinating birds, read on as we delve into its life. Our extensive guide will look at everything from their lifespan to what their poop even looks like.

So, read on to discover everything you need to know about the palm-nut vulture. 

Appearance 

These birds are easy to distinguish from other raptors. Weighing just 1.3 kg – 1.7 kg (2.9 – 3.7 lb), and measuring only 60 cm (2.0 ft) long with a wingspan of 150 cm (4.9 ft), the palm-nut vulture is the smallest of the Old World vultures.

The bird’s plumage is completely white except for some black areas inside its wings and tail. Juveniles take about 3 to 4 years to mature and are brown with yellow eye patches.

When in flight, the palm-nut vulture tends to resemble an eagle rather than your typical vulture.

Thanks to its covering of white plumage and black wing and tail feathers, adult palm-nut vultures can easily be mistaken for Egyptian vultures and even the African fish-eagle.

However, the main difference is the absence of a chestnut body that the African fish-eagle has and the white tail that the Egyption vulture possesses.

While the palm-nut vulture’s head, neck, and throat are well feathered, their face and eyes sport conspicuous reddish bare skin which is distinctly vulture-esque. 

Male Vs Female 

It can be quite a challenge to try and tell the difference between males and females. The sexes are almost identical to one another in appearance. The female is around the same size as the male.

Are They Aggressive? 

Although known to occasionally attack domestic poultry, the palm-nut vulture is not known to be an aggressive bird of prey.

As we mentioned above, they can be pretty approachable and live quite happily in close confines to humans.

Of course, if they feel threatened or they feel their young are in danger, they can become very territorial but rarely aggressive.

What Adaption Do They Have? 

Many of the vultures throughout Africa are of different sizes. Small or big, slender bills or fatter ones, vultures have adapted to their surroundings and environments over the centuries.

As palm-nut vultures mainly reside near oil and Raffia palms, they have adapted to their environments.

Humans are usually nearby where the palm-nut vulture dwells but they have certainly adapted well to living in close proximity to us.

Breeding/Reproduction Behavior 

Adjacent pairs of palm-nut vultures have been found to nest 1 km from each other. Little is known about the breeding and reproduction patterns of these birds but research has found that breeding pairs construct large stick nests that are high up in very tall trees.

The birds often exhibit very strong attachments to their nesting site.

Breeding pairs may even stay at their nesting site for a whole year and when Raffia palms are present, these pairs may build their nest at the base of palm fronds.

At the beginning of their breeding season, the male and female soar together in a beautiful aerial display of diving and rolling. This is far more acrobatic than other vultures.

During every breeding cycle, a singular white and brown egg is laid. Both sexes incubate the egg over four to six weeks. Then, 85 to 90 days after hatching, the chick will fledge.

Their Calls/Sounds  

Females can express dominance as well as interact with their mate with a disyllabic vocalization of “ur-urrr.” This sounds like a bark followed by a prolonged growl.

With breeding males, their first note is replaced with contact calls. When listening, you will hear a guttural quacking sound such s “kwuk-kwuk-kwuk-kwuk.”

This is thought to be a contact call from the male when he has started to breed.

During copulation, the males make a repetitive “ke-ke-ke-ke” sound with the first of every three notes being stressed as coition comes closer. This is then followed by a rapid repetition of “o-o-o-o.”

Overall, the palm-nut vulture has several high-pitched, whistling calls, mostly made during copulation or when defending their territory. Other than this, they tend to produce a quacking sound, very similar to a duck. 

What Do They Eat? (Diet)

Palm-nut vultures are unique in terms of birds of prey. This is because they feed mainly on fleshy fruit-husks of oil palms and the palm fruits of the Raffia palm. Over 60% of the adult’s diet is made up of these fruits and this increases to 90% for juveniles. 

However, it’s also been recorded that these raptors feed on both freshwater and marine crabs, mollusks, fish, frogs, small mammals, locusts, reptile eggs/hatchlings, and sometimes domestic poultry and carrion.

Where Do They Live? (Habitat)

Palm-Nut Vulture

The palm-nut vulture always seems to follow tracks of oil and Raffia palms, hence the name. Therefore, it’s mostly seen in coastal forests and mangrove swamps that lie below 1,500 m (4,900 ft).

They also occur in various wet savannahs. 

This bird of prey is found throughout most coastal regions of Africa from the Gambia to Kenya and even as far as South Africa. 

How Long Do They Live? (Lifespan)

When in captivity, the palm-nut vulture has been known to live up to 27.1 years. It is unclear what their average lifespan is in the wild but due to their large population, it is thought to be around the same number.

What Are Their Nesting Habits? 

Breeding pairs of palm-nut vultures build large nests made from sticks high up in tall trees. The birds seem to show a very strong attachment and pride in their nesting area.

Studies have discovered that they can even remain at their nesting site for an entire year.

When Raffia palms are present, breeding pairs have been known to build their nests at the base of palm fronds. The nests are usually made from sticks and are impressively large.

What Predators Do They Have? 

It’s believed that larger eagles and vultures can be a danger for palm-nut vultures but it’s their young and eggs that are most at risk. These are often the target of other vultures and birds in the area who want to get a fast, easy meal. 

What Are Their Feathers Like?

The plumage of a palm-nut vulture is all white apart from some black areas in its tail and wings. There is a red patch around each of their eyes which helps them stand out.

Juveniles have a brown covering with yellow eye patches. Until the young palm-nut vulture gains its full adult coloring, it will continue to be varying shades of brown with black primary feathers on show. 

They do not depend on thermals in flight. Instead, they flap their wings to keep their temperatures in check. 

What Does Their Poop Look Like? 

It’s no surprise that the feces of palm-nut vultures is very much like other bird’s droppings. It’s often white in color and liquified.

Do They Migrate? 

Palm-nut vultures are partially migrant. Juveniles disperse the breeding areas after 85 to 90 days but the species tend to remain in their local areas most of the time.

Studies conducted in 2008 found that there was a lower percentage of juveniles in October than in May along the Congo River.

This is thought to indicate a dispersal of the birds but these changes were probably in response to changes in the availability of water in certain regions. Some vagrants have been known to appear far away from their usual range. 

Conservation Status 

The population of the palm-nut vulture is considered stable with the species being widespread throughout most of the African continent.

However, it’s rarer and more localized in South Africa but, even here, it’s not considered to be under any immediate threat. Nonetheless, threats to the bird still remain. 

The lower population size in South Africa (40) makes the species vulnerable to stochastic events. Deforestation, open cast, and dune mining continue to threaten their habitats which remain their main threats. 

Raffia palms are being cultivated to provide food and nesting sites for the birds and the Isimangaliso Wetland park has a large portion of their habitats protected. It’s currently classified as least concern.

Fun Facts 

Although called the palm-nut vulture, it may not even be a vulture at all! Many consider it to be a vulturine eagle. So, it’s like a vulture but also like an eagle. It can’t decide!