On a beautiful morning in March, while wildlife photographer Oriol Alamany was having breakfast on the island of Socotra, an Egyptian vulture landed on a rock nearby. Taken without proper gear, Alamany crawled across the ground to photograph the bird from below at close range with a small camera he kept in his pocket. The vulture was holding on. The species, Neophron percnopterus, is known for its tolerance towards people and its abundance on this exceptionally biodiverse island, a mountainous flake from Yemen at the mouth of the Gulf of Aden which has been called the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean. Egyptian vultures line the walls and dumps around the cities of Hadiboh and Qalansiya; they alert the shepherds of births and deaths among their flocks; they congregate around wedding celebrations and picnics and, as Alamany discovered, are more than happy to join a traveler in their meal.
Birds’ appetite for rich human scraps is not the only sign of their intelligence. They are also one of the few bird species that have been observed using tools, dropping stones on eggs belonging to other large birds in an attempt to cook a tasty and fresh meal. The specific targets of these assaults – the eggs of ostriches, pelicans and flamingos among them – depend on location within the vultures’ considerable range, which spans three continents. Egyptian vultures also harvest wool by wrapping it with sticks to inflate their stinking nests, which can include fish bones, animal skins, and human droppings among their tangle of branches.
Poop isn’t just structural; it’s culinary too. Coprophagia in birds can help give their naked faces their striking yellow color. Some consider the Egyptian vulture to be the most beautiful among the vulture species because of this and their striking plumage. Their wings are mostly white, edged with long, smooth jet-black feathers. And the plumage on their head, neck, back, and chest is tinted gold to orange by the iron found in the red soils of the arid habitats they prefer. On Socotra, in particular, the vultures are blazing.
The fact that Egyptian vultures are so ubiquitous on the island, numbering 1,900 or 2,560, depending on the source consulted, is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak conservation story. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the species to be globally threatened in 2007, largely due to a sudden decline in India, where birds were poisoned by cattle carcasses containing the drug diclofenac veterinary anti-inflammatory. Longer-term declines have also wreaked havoc in Europe, due to waste control and intentional poisoning, and Africa, due to a loss of large wild ungulates, among a host of other factors.
Researchers RF Porter and Ahmed Saeed Suleiman suggest that Socotra’s unusually healthy population may have benefited from a lack of wild dogs and pesticides in local agriculture, and the lack of diclofenac on the island, as well as from ‘abundant caves and ledges sheltered among cliffs, rocky outcrops and mountains for nesting. Perhaps most important, according to a study published in 2013 by biologist Laura Gangoso and colleagues, is that a two-way relationship still exists between humans and vultures here, helping to make the population one of the densest in the world. Their abundance on the island is likely due to the colonist’s introduction of large cattle around 3,000 years ago, and even now birds play an inordinate role in local waste disposal, removing between 16.6 and 22.4 percent of the decaying organic waste produced on the island each. year, from carcasses to feces. The Socotri teach their children to respect birds, tell stories and jokes they feature in, and affectionately call them soeydu-literally, “trash”.