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To save South African vultures, learning to love them
Pair of conservationists put positive spin on vultures’ image in efforts to save them
Question of the Day
She has spent hours tapping and pulling at shells with surgical clamps. She uses a syringe to dampen the feathers of the emerging bird with a solution resembling a mother bird’s saliva.
In the wild, when over-eager parents hatch their chicks too fast, the chicks can die of shock.
Once Ms. Wolter’s chicks are hatched and deemed strong enough, they are returned to their parents.
The dummy egg is removed and the chick, under what looks like half an egg, is placed in the enclosure. The sound of its tapping stimulates the parents’ instincts.
“They, theoretically, hatch it again,” Ms. Wolter said.
“They don’t recognize it as their own chick if they don’t hatch it,” said Mr. Neser, who has scars from ankle bites as souvenirs of his frequent visits to the breeding enclosure.
Both vulture parents share in building nests, hatching and feeding their young.
The conservationists must strike a delicate balance. If they wait too long to place the chick back with its real parents, the chick may become too dependent on humans to be released into the wild. If they move too soon, the chick may be too weak to survive with its parents.
Clumsy parents seeking to shelter chicks under their feet have crushed them. Some vulture parents are not fooled by the elaborate charade of wooden eggs and half shells. They often kill chicks they see as outsiders.
Still, a successful hatching seems easy compared to the larger challenges.
The long-term goal is to re-establish viable breeding colonies in Namibia.
However a strong threat is posed to the species there by cattle farmers who poison predators like jackals to protect their cattle.
A common method is to leave a poisoned horse carcass out for jackals. Vultures swoop down on the carcass. One poisoned horse “can wipe out an entire colony,” Mr. Neser said.
Members of vulture colonies fly together, watching the ground but also watching one another. If one swoops for food, others follow.
“They have this pretty cool network going for locating food,” Mr. Neser said.
By Michael P. Orsi
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