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North Hills Monthly

National Aviary Trip to South Africa Designed to Increase Education, Understanding of Critically Endangered Vultures

Mar 30, 2020 03:24PM ● By Vanessa Orr

Jenny with Ayla, an African white-back vulture

The National Aviary, located on Pittsburgh’s North Side, plays a crucial role in saving birds and protecting habitats. Their staff is passionate about this mission; so much so that they travel thousands of miles to do their part to protect endangered species.

This past December, Jenny Owens, the National Aviary’s manager of behavioral husbandry and training, spent two weeks at Vulpro, a vulture conservation and rescue organization about an hour outside the city of Johannesburg in South Africa. There, she helped to take care of the 300-plus birds that live at the rescue permanently, as well as interacted with the wild vulture population.

“I spent a lot of time caring for the injured birds that live at the rescue that cannot be released into the wild,” she explained of her work prepping animal carcasses for the animals to eat and feeding the different aviaries. “We also supplied food to a ‘vulture restaurant,’ which is a safe feeding zone where food is supplied to wild vultures to help sustain their populations. And of course, there were the everyday tasks of fixing this and cleaning that.”

A large part of Owens’ time was also spent learning more about research and conservation.

“Vulpro does a lot of work researching populations, including conducting breeding surveys to measure how the population is faring by how the breeding colonies are doing,” said Owens, adding that the organization mainly works with cape vultures and white-backed vultures, but also lappet-faced vultures, hooded vultures and palm-nut vultures. “This involves tagging young chicks at the nest sites, and collecting data on their movements and what environmental factors are affecting them.”

The organization also runs an ex-situ breeding program, using the birds housed at the center to produce healthy chicks that can be released into the wild to supplement decreasing populations.

“All species of vulture in South Africa are endangered or critically endangered,” said Owens, who has worked closely with the hooded vultures at the National Aviary for the past 10 years.

According to Owens, there are a number of reasons why the vulture population is decreasing, including the fact that people just don’t understand how important they are to the environment.

“Vultures get a bad rap because there are so many misconceptions about them,” she said. “Many people associate them with death and think that they are dirty birds because they eat animal carcasses. But they are extremely important to the environment and to public health; they digest rotting meat that contains anthrax, rabies, and Ebola, and it doesn’t affect them. They help to stop the spread of disease.”

In South Africa, injured vultures arrive at Vulpro as a result of collisions with power lines and either accidental or intentional poisoning. 

“Because people don’t like scavengers on their property, they may poison a carcass, which targets the animals that eat it,” Owens explained. “Or if an animal was treated with certain veterinary drugs and it dies, it can be poisonous to the scavengers that eat the carcass.” 

According to the Vulpro website, other manmade threats impacting the population include direct harvesting for cultural beliefs, and ever decreasing foraging ranges. The animals are so threatened, in fact, that some populations have plummeted by more than 90 percent in the past 30 years.

Owens hopes that by sharing information about vultures, she can help to change public perception and encourage people to take action to save these animals in the wild.

“My goal is to share the vultures’ story with everyone who walks in the door, as well as my team members,” she said, adding that the ability to work with birds in the wild gives staff an extra boost of energy to continue their work. “The aviary is passionate about conservation work, and in supporting staff to get more education and to bring that information back to share with others.”

The National Aviary regularly provides opportunities for staff members to travel for field work, and has recently sponsored trips to South Africa for staff to work with penguins at the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), and to the island of Saipan to help relocate populations of Golden White-eyes and Rufous Fantails to protect them from invasive brown tree snakes that threaten the population. It also provides staff to help in emergency situations, such as a trip to South Africa last winter to help baby flamingos that had been abandoned by their parents as a result of the ongoing drought.

While the trip was arduous, Owens feels like it was well worth it.

“Travel was long and exhausting; it took about 14 hours to get from JFK airport in New York to Johannesburg,” she said. “The country is beautiful, but it was not what I expected. People think it’s very wild and that there are animals everywhere, but the animals really only exist in reserves where they are protected.

“It was a lot of hard work—harder than I expected,” she added. “It was their summer there, so it was very hot, and it rained for seven days straight. They needed it because the country is in a drought, so everyone loved it except me. I was hoping to get away from the rain in Pittsburgh!”

Owens encourages everyone who has an interest in vultures or conservation to visit the National Aviary to see the birds, including the hooded vultures that fly in shows on Sky Deck, a rooftop outdoor theater, two times a day during the summer. 

“It’s always great to see people learning more about the animals,” said Owens. “And maybe it will flip that switch, and they’ll want to do more for them.”