As regular CFZ-watchers will know, for some time Corinna has been doing a column for Animals & Men and a regular segment on On The Track... particularly about out-of-place birds and rare vagrants. There seem to be more and more bird stories from all over the world hitting the news these days so, to make room for them all - and to give them all equal and worthy coverage - she has set up this new blog to cover all things feathery and Fortean.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Vultures smear their faces in red mud which they use as makeup

15 May 2017

By Sandhya Sekar

A species of vulture has been filmed putting on make-up for the first time – a rare phenomenon in birds, known as cosmetic colouration.

The Egyptian vulture normally has a yellow wrinkled face surrounded by a halo of white hair. But on Fuerteventura island in the Canaries off the coast of Africa, many vultures sport reddish heads and necks, with the colour varying from pale brown to deep crimson.

These vultures dip their heads in red soil and swipe from side to side, carefully dyeing their head, neck and chest red. It is a well-studied population, so almost every vulture on the island is marked with plastic rings, allowing researchers to study individual differences in this curious behaviour.

“It’s the first documentation of this behaviour in wild birds that are individually marked,” says Thijs Van Overveld of Doñana Biological Station in Spain.

To see it up-close, Overveld and his colleagues kept two bowls in the island’s feeding station, one filled with red soil dissolved in water, the other with just water. As the hidden researchers watched, the vultures took their mud baths.

The birds examined the muddy water, scratched about with their legs, and then gently swiped both sides of their heads in the mud, emerging with red head, neck and chest feathers. Out of about 90 birds that visited over one day, 18 took mud baths. A couple of vain individuals even had two baths.
Something special

“The most interesting part of our observation is that there is great variation among individuals in the extent to which they paint feathers, ranging from almost completely white to almost completely red,” says Overveld.

The vultures did not follow a particular pattern while mud painting and the baths were not restricted to a particular age, or sex.

Although the related bearded vulture is known to display a similar behaviour as a signal of dominance, the researchers don’t believe that Egyptian vultures paint themselves for this reason.

Unlike the Egyptian vultures in the Canaries, the bearded vulture goes for its mud baths in secret, and the mud daubing itself is a lot more elaborate. Also, the bearded vulture is solitary, and the authors say signalling dominance may be more important for them.


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