White-Headed Vulture: The Ultimate Guide

The White-Headed Vulture, scientifically known as Trigonoceps occipitalis is a part of the Accipitridae bird family which stems back to the Paleogene period. 

The existence of the White-headed Vulture is in rapid decline from West Africa to Southern Africa. Their rapid decline has come about as a result of numerous factors including indirect poisoning as well as direct killing to be used for traditional medicinal purposes.

This species of vulture can be found in large areas ranging from but not limited to sub-Saharan Africa, Senegal, Gambia, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Southern Africa.

They have a distinct appearance and embody a host of features and adaptations that make them a strong predator. 

The following presents an ultimate guide on everything you need to know about the White-headed Vulture. 

Appearance

The White-headed Vulture is a medium-sized vulture about 80cm (2ft/ 31.5 inches) long and has a wingspan of 1.8 meters (5.9ft/ 70.8 inches). 

The White-headed Vulture consists of darker shades across its body with a white neck that continues up to a black encircled ruff. 

White-headed Vultures embody a distinct naked, white, pale, and angular head. The bare pink skin that covers their face includes round holes in the cheeks which is where their ears are positioned. 

Another distinguishing feature is their coral-colored beak and a white underbelly with a brown waistcoat-like breast and white secondary wing feathers.  

As babies, the White-headed Vulture’s entire body is dark except for the distinctive white, naked head and coral beak.

Their wings extended long beyond the tail. 

Male vs Female

White-headed Vultures differ in appearance. The females are larger with all white inner secondary wings and grey inner secondary wings on male White-headed Vultures.

Female White-headed Vultures are not only larger than their male counterparts, but they also weigh more, weighing around 4.7kg (10.36lbs) while males weigh about 4kg (8.81lbs). 

Are They Aggressive?

The White-headed Vulture is considered to be one of the more aggressive species of vulture.

What Adaptations Do They Have?

Bare face

The most significant adaptation of the White-headed Vulture is the adaptation of its bare facial skin. This distinct feature evolved as a way of keeping them clean during feeding.

Known for not wanting to make a mess during feeding, the White-headed Vultures naked head is an advantage when it comes to feasting on a carcass. 

Having a bare-skinned head also provides additional advantages of being a reliable thermal regulator. Their bare skin serves as a way of radiating heat away and lowering their body’s temperature.

This is achieved by the supply of blood vessels below their skin which bring blood to the surface of their skin where they can then radiate the heat away. Whereas if they had a feathered head, this process would be prohibited. 

Wings 

The wings of a White-headed Vulture are adapted to soar at altitudes ranging from 200 to 2000 meters (656ft to 6561.68ft/ 7874 inches to 78,740 inches) over landscapes.

Their wingspan along with their relative white weight in comparison to their size serves them well as it enables greater ability and mobility. This enables them to hunt more effectively.

With wings that barely have to flap enabling them to conserve their energy and travel great distances without stopping. 

Eyesight

White-headed Vultures possess excellent eyesight. This adaption allows them to more accurately track their prey and spot carcasses and scavengers from great heights. 

Bodily fluids

White-headed Vultures excrete extremely bodily fluids. Its highly corrosive stomach acid enables it to digest bacteria-infected carcasses and other putrid remains.

Their stomach acid also contains high levels of antibodies that resist toxins and diseases such as anthrax, cholera, and salmonella. 

The White-headed Vulture need not physically attack intruders, instead, its stomach acid is enough.

White-headed Vultures can produce vomit that is extremely acidic to the point where it can burn, this comes as a result of the putrid carrion that moves through their digestive system.

Not only is their stomach acid and vomit acidic, but White-headed Vultures also produce urine containing powerful uric acid.

Urinating down their leg is one of the ways that they use the advantage of their antibacterial properties. By doing so, they eliminate any bacteria that may have been picked up from a carcass or elsewhere. 

In addition, their urine acts as a coolant when it evaporates. 

Breeding / Reproduction Behaviour

White-Headed Vultures are solitary creatures that only come together to reproduce. They lay 1 egg. Breeding for White-Headed Vultures occurs annually.

Their nests are constructed from grass and placed on the crown of a tall tree. 

Before laying their egg, a pair of White-Headed Vultures will connect and demonstrate their union by soaring and circling together above their breeding area/ 

White-Headed Vultures lay a single white, brown, and grey spotted egg. It is incubated by the female for around 50-56 days. Once hatched, both parents feed the immature vulture for 3 months until it can leave.

Incubation and rearing and feeding duties are performed by both parents. Chicks are fed with regurgitated food from crops. 

The egg-laying season for White-Headed Vultures differs depending on geographical location. Eggs in West Africa are laid in the dry season between October to January.

Eggs in West Africa are laid depending on the local rainfall patterns and greatly vary. Eggs in southern Africa are laid in the dry season between May and August.

Their Calls / Sounds

White-Headed Vulture

The White-Headed Vulture is relatively silent other than sometimes producing a high, hoarse cry. 

What Do They Eat?

White-Headed Vultures are carnivores sustained by a diet of small vertebrates, other birds, and reptiles. They are known for being the first vultures to arrive at a fresh carcass, usually arriving alone or in pairs to feed on the bone carrion, bone fragments, and skin. 

They tend to set off in the early hours to hunt or search for a fresh carcass. They are considered ‘clean’ feeders, careful not to get any blood on them and often moving away to eat away from a huddle.

Also considered as scavengers, the White-Headed Vulture also searches for locusts and termites. 

Where Do They Live? What Their Habitat Looks Like

The White-Headed Vulture lives in a range of habitats. The White-Headed Vulture can be found in the desert of Ethiopia, the grasslands of Senegal, the open plains of sub-Saharan Africa.

The White-Headed Vulture prefers drier areas with tall trees for a more secure resting place.

White-Headed Vultures are mostly a lowland species but they can be found flying up to 4000 meters (13123ft / 157,480 inches) high.

What Are Their Nesting Habits?

The White-Headed Vulture tends to nest and roost in tall trees that are near water as they tend to drink a lot. Acacia and baobabs are particular favorites. 

How Long Do They Live For?

White-Headed Vultures live for up to 20 years. 

What Predators Do They Have?

The White-Headed Vultures’ most prevalent threat is the lack of prey they face due to extreme habitat loss and excessive hunting habits. In addition, direct and indirect positioning caused by humans has been a great contributor to their decline in numbers.

White-Headed Vultures are threatened by farmers hunting them as a way of protecting their cattle. Additionally, farmers are killing predators with insecticides which are transferred to insecticide-laced carcasses that Vultures feed on.

White-Headed Vultures are consequently killed as a result of indirect poisoning. 

A decline in wild grazing cattle has resulted in the decline of a sustainable source of food for vultures which has contributed to increasing their threat of extinction. 

Due to the expansion of agricultural land and the reduction of suitable habitat space for White-Headed Vultures, there is little area for them to call home.

As a result, up to 60% of vultures are not attempting to breed which has resulted in a catastrophic decline in reproduction rates. 

What Are Their Feathers Like?

White-Headed Vultures have black/ brown flight feathers and tails with a white feathered throat and thighs. 

What Does Their Poop Look Like?

White-Headed vulture poop comes out as white fluid. 

Do They Migrate?

Adult White-Headed Vultures tend to be more territorial and as a result, tend to stay in their area and avoid traveling long distances but they do not migrate.

However, immature White-Headed Vultures are more likely to move around more due to a desire to wander, they can reach up to 90km per hour in flight. 

Conservation Status

White-Headed Vultures are currently at a high risk of extinction in the wild with a classification of being considered highly vulnerable and critically endangered. 

Fun Facts

Did you know that 61% of White-Headed Vultures do not mate, as a result, they have had a decline in reproduction rates.

Did you know that vulture poop is a sanitizer with a uric acid that kills any bacteria that they may have picked up from a carcass?

Did you know that White-Headed Vultures are unique amongst African vultures because of their reversed sexual dimorphism? The female White-Headed Vulture is larger than the male White-Headed Vulture.

Did you know that the vomit of a White-Headed Vulture is strong enough to burn an intruder as it is made of powerful acid?