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Vulture Shock: How poisoned meat has put these corpse-eating birds in danger of dying out.

High in the sky above East Africa, a swarm of vultures appears. They circle downward, riding the wind with their huge wings. Soon, the vultures are hunched over a dead zebra. In less than an hour, the animal's bones have been picked clean.

Vultures are scavengers, animals that consume dead organisms. That might seem gross. But by gobbling up animal carcasses, vultures help keep ecosystems clean.

Unfortunately, vultures are in grave danger. Around the world, toxic substances used by farmers and hunters have poisoned the animals that vultures eat. The problem has put some species of vultures on the brink of extinction. That's why experts are working to save the important birds.

Clean-up Crew

Until recently, not much scientific research focused on vultures. "Even scientists thought vultures were kind of gross," says biologist Evan Buechley. He studies vultures with a conservation group called HawkWatch International. Buechley says experts are still learning about the birds' unique traits.

Vultures live on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. They have many adaptations that help them find and eat dead animals. Their giant wings--as large as 3 meters (10 feet) across--help them soar over vast areas to search for food. Their sharp vision lets them spot a dead animal from hundreds of meters in the air. And super-strong acid in their stomach allows them to digest rotting meat without getting sick.

Many other scavengers, such as rats and hyenas, eat dead animals. But they also hunt animals or eat plants. Vultures are one of the few creatures that eat almost nothing but carcasses. If they were to disappear, the planet would be full of dead animals. Those corpses would breed dangerous bacteria that could spread infections to other animals.

Without vultures, humans would be in trouble too. In places where vulture numbers decline, the populations of rats, insects, and other disease-carrying scavengers explode. For instance, rats can spread dangerous diseases to humans in their droppings.

Poison Control

Today, vultures are among the most threatened birds in the world. And the number one reason is poisoned meat.

Poison became a problem for vultures in India in the 1990s. Farmers in that country were using a drug to ease aches and pains in cattle. The drug was toxic to vultures. So when the cow died, any vultures that ate its body died too.

Dozens of vultures feast on a single carcass, so one toxic cow could kill as many as 100 vultures. India's vultures were nearly wiped out before the drug was banned in 2006.

Today, vultures face a similar threat across Africa. There, lions sometimes attack animals raised on farms. When that happens, some farmers place poison inside the carcasses of their livestock (see Toxic Meal, below). The farmers' goal is to kill lions that return to eat the body. But the poison also kills vultures that come to feed. As a result, Africa's vulture populations have plummeted.

The situation is serious. "Many species could go extinct within 10 years if we don't do something," says Buechley.

Protecting Vultures

There are ways people can help vultures. Governments can pass laws to ban certain toxic substances. Breeding programs can also help boost the birds' numbers.

Both of those efforts helped save the California condor, a vulture native to the western U.S. For decades, the birds were poisoned after eating animals shot by toxic lead bullets. By 1982, only 23 birds were left.

So conservationists began breeding condors and releasing them into the wild. Lead bullets were also banned in some areas. Today, there are more than 400 condors soaring above the American west.

If vultures were to disappear, humans would have to figure out how to dispose of dead animals. And so far, there are no good ideas. "The best way is to keep vulture populations healthy," Buechley says. That way, they can keep up their grisly but crucial job.

words to know

scavenger--an animal that eats decaying material

ecosystem-all the living and nonliving things that interact with one another in a place

extinction-the death of all members of a species

adaptation--a change in the body or behavior of a species over many generations, making it better able to survive

bacteria--single-celled microscopic organisms

Meet the Vultures

These two vultures are common year-round in the southern United States. Have you ever spotted one?

FACT: Turkey vultures can sniff out a dead animal from 5 miles away.

FACT: Black vultures often follow turkey vultures to food--then chase them off!

Toxic Meal

Some farmers in Africa set out poison to kill the predators--like lions-that threaten their livestock. That poison makes its way to vultures and other animals too.

(1) A lion kills a farmer's cow.

(2) The farmer places poison in the animal's body to kill any lions that return to feed.

(3) The poison kills lions--and up to 100 vulrues that feed on the cow's body.

Vulture Shock


READING LEVELS: Lexile 860 / Guided Reading Level

NEED A LOWER READING LEVEL? To access this article at a lower reading level, go to

SEL: This lesson plan contains social-emotional learning (SEL)support related to social awareness.


Analyze data to explain how changes in vulture populations could affect ecosystems over time

Lesson Plan

(1) Use a photo of vultures eating to prompt a discussion.

Log onto SuperScience Online and open the magazine view of pages 4-5. Use the spotlight tool to highlight the image of the group of vultures feeding. Give students time to make observations about the image. Ask: What do you think is going on in this photo, and why?

Allow students to discuss the image with a partner they've never worked with before. Then have volunteers share their explanations with the class. Ask: How were your ideas similar and different? What new ideas did we learn from working with different people?

(2) Watch a video to spark a discussion about scavengers.

Show students the video "Super Scavengers," available at superscience. After watching the video, ask:

* What is a scavenger? (an animal that eats decaying plants and animals)

* What role do scavengers have in ecosystems? (They keep ecosystems healthy by consuming dead organisms.)

(3) Read the article and review it with a skills sheet.

Have students read the article independently. After reading, ask: What are some ways described in the article that vultures' food supply is poisoned? (Farmers give livestock toxic medicine or place poison in carcasses; hunters use toxic lead bullets.) Then allow students to complete the "Think It Through" skills sheet (T13).

(4) Analyze data from a line graph.

Partner students to complete the skills sheet "Condor Comeback" (T5). Then ask: What do you think would happen to the ecosystem if California condors were to become extinct? (Other scavenger populations would increase, possibly spreading more diseases, and people would have to clean up dead animals.)

(5) Write a narrative from the perspective of a vulture.

Have students work independently to write a story about life as a vulture. They should include information from the article and the video.


Condor Comeback

Name: ______________________ Date:________________

In "Vulture Shock" (pp. 4-7), you learned that many vulture species are in danger of becoming extinct because of eating poisoned meat. The California condor is an endangered vulture species that lives in the western U.S. It was almost extinct. But the birds have made a comeback thanks to efforts to breed and release them into the wild. Study the graph, then answer the questions.

1. In what year shown on the graph was the California condor population the lowest?

2. About how many condors were alive in 1995?

3. About how many more condors were there in 2010 than in 2005?

(A) 25 (C) 100

(B) 50 (D) 150

4. True or False: The total number of condors in 2015 was more than four times greater than the number in 1968.

5. Do you think the number of condors will continue to grow over the next five years? What factors might affect their success? Continue your answer on the back of this paper.


* Condor Comeback (Reproducible, T5)

1. The California condor population was lowest in 1983.

2. There were approximately 125 condors in 1995.

3. c 4. True 5. Answers will vary but may include that if condor breeding programs and protection continue, the number of condors could continue to rise. If the protection ends or if other threats emerge, then the numbers could decline again.


Condor Comeback (T5):

Analyze a graph showing how the population of California condors has changed overtime.

available at

Skills sheets:

Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review! (online only): Use a checklist to summarize important details in the article.


Think It Through

Name: -- Date: --

Use the article "Vulture Shock" (pp. 4-7) to answer each question.

1. Which sentence from the article supports the conclusion that vultures help keep ecosystems clean?

(A) "The problem has put some species of vultures on the brink of extinction." (B) "Vultures live on every continent except Australia and Antarctica." (C) "Vultures are one of the few creatures that eat almost nothing but carcasses." (D) "There are ways people can help vultures."

2. What are three adaptations that help vultures thrive in their environment?

3. How are vultures different from most other scavengers? Use information from the article to support your answer.

4. What can you infer about the farmers in Africa who use poison to kill predators that threaten their livestock?

(A) They are trying to get away with breaking the law. (B) Protecting their livestock is more important to them than protecting vultures. (C) They have an unlimited supply of poison. (D) They do not know that the poison is getting into the water supply.

5. Imagine you're a farmer in Africa whose cows are being killed by nearby predators. How might you protect your livestock without harming vultures? Brainstorm two possible solutions in the space below.


* Think It Through (Reproducible, T13)

1. c 2. Vultures have giant wings that help them soar over large areas to find food, excellent vision that allows them to spot a carcass from high up in the air, and strong stomachs that allow them to digest rotting meat. 3. Like all scavengers, vultures eat animals that have already died. Unlike most scavengers, vultures eat almost nothing but carcasses. They also don't carry diseases like some other scavengers. 4. b 5. Answers will vary. Possible solutions may include having guard animals like dogs protect the herd and building a fenced-in area to keep the cows together at night.


Vulture Story Starter (online only): Write a narrative from the perspective of a vulture.

Caption: A white-backed vulture feasts on a zebra's body in Kenya.

Caption: One dead animal can attract dozens of hungry vultures.

Caption: Vultures compete for food with other scavengers, like this golden jackal.

Caption: A king vulture picks apart an animal carcass in Costa Rica.

Caption: Biologist Evan Buechley and an Egyptian vulture

Deadly Diet

In 2015, scientists studied the causes
of 7,819 recent vulture deaths across
Africa. Here's what they found.

Killed by           1%
 humans for food

Poisoned           61%

Hunted by          29%
 humans to
 sell their
 body parts

Caught in          9%
 electric wires

Think: Do you think African vulture:
have many animal predators?

Note: Table made from pie chart
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Title Annotation:life science
Author:Drimmer, Stephanie Warren
Date:Oct 1, 2018
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