Himalayan vultures (Gyps himalayensis) are indigenous to the uplands of central Asia, ranging from Kazakhstan and Afghanistan in the west to western China and Mongolia in the east. These birds generally migrate only altitudinally within their central Asian range, however immature juveniles have been recently documented in southeast Asia from northern Myanmar to northwest Indonesia. In this area they are seen with increasing frequency during the boreal winter months of October through March, possibly due to reduced food availability during this period of time. (Li and Kasorndorkbua, 2008; Lu, et al., 2009)
This species predominately inhabits the mountainous terrain of the Tibetan plateau with migration usually only occurring altitudinally. Breeding typically occurs at elevations between 600 and 4,500 m. Foraging has been observed to occur at elevations as high as 5,000 m or more. Non-breeding migrants such as juveniles tend to spend the boreal winter in the lowland plains near the southern edge of their range, just south of the Himalayas. A majority of the plateau landscape is meadow, especially in the north. The remainder of the plateau is dominated by alpine shrub in the middle and forests in the south. (Li and Kasorndorkbua, 2008; Lu, et al., 2009; Virani, et al., 2008)
Himalayan vultures are huge, bulky vultures with stout bills, loosely feathered ruff, long wings, and a short tail. They can weigh up to 12 kg with a body length of 95 to 130 cm and a wingspan of 270 to 300 cm. Juveniles generally experience a gradual change of body covering from white down to dark brown feathers with the head remaining a whitish color. Adults strongly contrast between cream and blackish, while the juveniles are dark. Adult plumage is used to distinguish them from G. fulvus since G. himalayensis is much paler (less reddish color) and larger. Himalayan vultures are also much larger than G indicus and possess a stouter, much more robust bill. (Brown and Amadon, 1968; Ferguson-Lees and Christie, 2001; Ming, et al., 2013)
These birds generally mate at the nest site, but never on the ground. No courtship display has been observed. The chest patches of females have been noted to take on a distinct reddish tint prior to mating. If the female is receptive to a male, she crouches down as the male approaches. The male then proceeds to jump onto the female's back and takes hold of her ruff with his beak, all while vocalizing by emitting loud roaring calls until there is contact between the cloacae. The entire sequence can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes. (Ferguson-Lees and Christie, 2001; Schlee, 1989)
Himalayan vultures are generally site faithful meaning they return to the same nesting and roosting sites from year to year. Nests are built on ledges or in small caves 100 to 200 m up cliffs. Depending on the size and structure of the cliff, nesting colonies can hold between five and sixteen nests. Nests are predominantly composed of sticks and they can be either constructed by the birds themselves or those of Lammergeiers Gypaetus barbatus that are taken over and repaired. Nests are typically built or repaired from December to March. Eggs are laid between January and April, followed by hatching between February and May, and the rearing of chicks from July to September (sometimes October) at which time the juveniles fledge and leave the nest. The entire four to five month (can be extended to six to seven months) reproductive period is one of the longest recorded among Gyps vultures, resulting in adult birds not receiving much respite. Only one, milky-white colored egg is laid by this species per breeding season. When the eggs are hatched, the newly white downy chick weighs about 164 g and is fully capable of biting. Breeding typically occurs on a yearly basis and is not synchronized among individuals thus hatching dates vary by one to two months. (Acharya, et al., 2009; Ferguson-Lees and Christie, 2001; Ming, et al., 2013; Schlee, 1989)
Males and females both take part in building nests. Before the egg is laid, the female plunges her breast into the nest pushing the material into place to make a depression while the male brings material for the nest to the female. Both sexes participate in incubation, with the female typically on the nest during the morning while the male takes over in the afternoon. Both parents take care of the nestling. After hatching the chick is closely brooded for the first few days, but by the end of the week the parents begin to leave it unattended for extended periods of time. The female alone remains with the chick throughout the entire hatching period and aids in pipping the egg via cracking it by breaking off pieces with the tip of her beak. The chick is slipped out of the shell with the help of the female and the male then consumes the shell. Both sexes are equally involved in feeding the nestling. Initially, the parents regurgitate a thick, whitish fluid from their stomachs that serves as the primary food source for the nestling, but over time they begin to feed it small pieces of carcass. Overall, both males and females exhibit similar parental behaviors consisting of preening the chick, watching it, moving it around, and feeding it. (Schlee, 1989)
The population dynamics of Himalayan vultures until recently, have seldom been studied and thus remain relatively unknown. As such, little to no information is known regarding their survivorship and lifespan. However, in one of their closest relatives, the White-backed vulture (G. africanus), the longest recorded lifespan in captivity is around 20 years. (Arshad, et al., 2009)
Compared to other Gyps vultures, adult Himalayan vultures appear to be less gregarious preferring instead to nest singly or in small colonies composed of four to six pairs on cliff faces. Their large body size offers them dominance during feeding over other vultures at mixed gatherings at carcasses such as cinereous vultures (Aegypius monachus) and bearded vultures (Gyaetus barbatus). Both of these species are subordinate to the Himalayan vultures and keep their distance when partaking in the consumption of a carcass in order to avoid attacks. Himalayan vultures are highly mobile foragers and generally remain away from human settlements. (Lu, et al., 2009; Virani, et al., 2008)
Home range size of Himalayan vultures has not been identified in the literature. (Lu, et al., 2009)
Like most Old World vultures, these scavengers rely predominantly on their eyesight to find food compared to New World vultures that instead rely heavily on their keen sense of smell. (Lu, et al., 2009)
Similar to other Gyps vultures, Himalayan vultures are specialists on the carrion of large mammals (wild and livestock). Food is located visually while soaring either directly or indirectly through the monitoring of other scavenging birds. The carcasses of livestock, large wild herbivores, and humans are all included in the diet of Himalayan vultures. Yaks (Bos grunniens) make up the majority of the the diet due to their large biomass, followed by wild ungulates such as Tibetan asses (Equus kiang) and Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii). Himalayan vultures typically swallow large pieces of flesh while softer carcass parts are preferred. (Li and Kasorndorkbua, 2008; Lu, et al., 2009; Ming, et al., 2013; Virani, et al., 2008)
Apart from humans, there are no known natural predators of Himalayan vultures.
Himalayan vultures are considered localized scavengers of nature, carrying out the important role of helping to remove and process carrion. They are also the most dominant avian scavenger on the Tibetan plateau, experiencing minimal competition for food resources from other scavengers. (Lu, et al., 2009; Ming, et al., 2013)
Himalayan vultures are highly respected within the Buddhist culture of the Tibetan plateau, playing a unique role in a centuries old sky burial tradition (feeding of human corpses to vultures at specific sites) that is followed by about four million Tibetan people. At sky burial sites, human corpses that are intended for consumption by Himalayan vultures are broken up by burial priests. As a result of this ongoing tradition, local people continue to value and protect these scavengers. (Acharya, et al., 2009; Lu, et al., 2009; Ming, et al., 2013)
There are no known adverse effects of Himalayan vultures on humans.
In parts of Asia and Africa, the use of veterinary diclofenac has had a devastating impact on Gyps vultures especially in the lowland regions of the Indian subcontinent where only the first year immature (subadult and juvenile) Himalayan vultures winter there. Diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, causes visceral gout in vultures that have consumed contaminated carcasses ultimately resulting in renal failure. The consumption of carcasses exposed to diclofenac by Himalayan vultures is a serious threat to their continued survival. (Lu, et al., 2009; Ming, et al., 2013; Virani, et al., 2008)
Himalayan vultures are the least studied of the Gyps vultures due to their occurrence at high elevations in cold climates and strong winds. Local Buddhist people believe that Himalayan vultures carry the soul of a dead person to heaven, thus if vultures do not visit the corpse it is believed that the individual has sinned greatly during his or her lifetime. (Acharya, et al., 2009; Lu, et al., 2009)
Amrit Gill (author), Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Mark Jordan (editor), Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.
uses sound to communicate
young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
helps break down and decompose dead plants and/or animals
an animal that mainly eats meat
flesh of dead animals.
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.
referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
Having one mate at a time.
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.
found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.
reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.
an animal that mainly eats dead animals
scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
associates with others of its species; forms social groups.
uses touch to communicate
Coniferous or boreal forest, located in a band across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. This terrestrial biome also occurs at high elevations. Long, cold winters and short, wet summers. Few species of trees are present; these are primarily conifers that grow in dense stands with little undergrowth. Some deciduous trees also may be present.
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.
A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.
A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.
uses sight to communicate
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Ferguson-Lees, J., D. Christie. 2001. Raptors of the World. Great Britain: A&C Black Ltd..
Li, Y., C. Kasorndorkbua. 2008. The status of the Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis in South-East Asia. FORKTAIL, 24: 57-62.
Lu, X., D. Ke, X. Zeng, G. Gong, R. Ci. 2009. Status, Ecology, and Conservation of the Himalayan Griffon Gyps himalayensis (Aves, Accipitridae) in the Tibetan Plateau. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Enviroment, 38(3): 166-173.
Ming, M., C. Dao, G. Xu, J. Shan, X. Zhao, A. Maimaitiming, R. Xing, B. Luo. 2013. Why are juvenile Himalayan vultures Gyps himalayensis in the Xinjiang Tien Shan still at the nest in October?. BirdingASIA, 20: 84-89.
Schlee, M. 1989. Breeding the Himalayan griffon International Zoo Yearbook, 28(1): 334-340.at the Paris Menagerie.
Virani, M., J. Giri, R. Watson, H. Baral. 2008. Surveys of Himalayan Vultures (Gyps himalayensis) in the Annapurna Conservation Area, Mustang, Nepal. Journal of Raptor Research, 42(3): 197-203.