October 19, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

This is Kevin. If you thought that all animal babies were cute then I’m sorry to disappoint, as this is probably the ugliest animal you will ever see. It’s not a mutant, nor is it some sort of small dinosaur: it’s a Black Vulture chick and it shouldn’t be there.

I don’t mean it shouldn’t be alive, I mean that it doesn’t actually belong in an exhibit. Kevin and his parents are wild black vultures that moved into Buin Zoo a few months ago. The story however, didn’t start with the birds taking over the pelican shed; it began with a captive black vulture that started feeding them.

In august last year the vulture keeper, Don Sergio, began to notice that one of his charges had visitors. Every night once the zoo had closed a black vulture couple would circle the air around the enclosure of their fellow vultures. After checking that the coast was clear one of the intruders would land in front of the cage and wait silently, well almost silently. Black vultures can’t make a lot of sounds, as they lack the syrinx – the vocal organ of birds – but they can grunt and hiss. One evening, after following these strange noises, Don Sergio saw the captive Jote doing the strangest thing. He would approach the railing of the enclosure with a piece of food in his mouth and drop it through the railings onto the ground below, where it would be gobbled by the wild vultures. Once the keepers realised what was happening, they too began to toss the vultures whatever food they had to spare; scraps of fish intended for the sea lions or bits of meat from the tiger’s dinner. Then, several months later, a large brown and white speckled egg was found on the other side of the zoo. It was unmistakably a black vulture egg; the pair, it seemed, had decided to stay.

The couple have now been given indefinite leave to remain and have become completely used to life at the zoo. Now, instead of begging for food from their vulture friend, they order directly from the zoo kitchen. With the greatest subtlety one of the pair will try to catch the attention of whoever’s inside… by flying head first into the window repeatedly. The zoo is also benefiting from this relationship; the keepers go into the nest every day to take photos and observe the young bird’s progress. They hope that a greater understanding of parenting behaviour in wild animals will help them breed vultures more successfully in captivity.

As for the captive Jote, no-one is really sure why he began sharing his food in the first place. Were the birds related to him? Was it a misguided attempt at courtship? Or was he, as his keeper is convinced, showing true altruism? We will probably never know. The only fact we can be sure of is that that if Don Sergio ever forgets to feed the wild birds, they always return to wait outside the vulture enclosure, and for whatever mysterious reason, the same captive bird shares his food every time.