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Fri 14 Jan 2005

Himalayan Griffon Vultures in Singapore

Category : news

12 Jan 2005 - Hugh Tan (who previously contributed a Kent Ridge hornbill sighting) has stolen the show yet again.

He reported the sighting of a pair of Himalayan Griffon Vultures (Gyps himalayensis) on Sunday, 9th January 2005.

"On Sunday afternoon, I noticed a pair of Himalayan Griffon Vultures circling overhead in my neighbourhood.

During the 15 minutes of observation, they were first circling over McMahon Park, then moved towards adjacent Ghim Moh. At first glance, I thought they were Brahminy Kites as they had white heads but they were too large-sized and their heads too small in proporation to their body size.

I photographed them and showed the photos to ornithologist Navjot Sodhi [his colleague in the Department of Biological Sciences] who indicated they looked like vultures. He could not quite believe his eyes as these are generally unheard of in Singapore.

With the story on the front page of the Straits Times today, their identities were finally revealed!"

The Straits Times online published a photo of an exhausted vulture at Jurong Bird Park on 11th January (above) and reported the next day that "Lost vulture drops in at Orchard Road." The Straits Times, 12th January 2005 [pdf]. The report also mentioned a pair sighted over the weekend in the Orchard Road area.

"Mr Tan Hock Ann, 52, the operations manager of Nanyang Girls' High School off Dunearn Road, found the lone bird in the school's backyard, unable to fly. 'It seemed very weak and vomited out the water we gave it. It wasn't aggressive so we took it to the bird park.'"

What has happened to its companion? Once can only hope it gets help just as fortunately as this one did.

Caption and photo from The Straits Times, 11 Jan 2005: Visiting Vulture: A Himalayan Griffon Vulture first spotted over the weekend in the Orchard Road area was found exhausted and brought to the Jurong Bird Park on Tuesday where it is recuperating. A native to Central Asia, the creature is one of the world's largest birds with a wingspan of up to 4m and native to Central Asia. - Photo by Heng Yong Hock.

Escaped from the pet trade? Updated, 14 Jan 2005

Navjot Sodhi had suggested to Hugh Tan that "the birds [Orchard Road vultures] may be released or escaped captives and are unlikely to be lost migrants, as this species is not known to migrate. They are apparently easy to keep as pets as they are relatively gentle and can be fed dog food!"

In Singapore, naturalists have never discounted escaped animals as possible explanation when faced with unusual records.

There has been other instances of these vultures appearing in Singapore before, and I remember in particular, considerable excitement amongst naturalists here when a flock was sighted in Bukit Timah in 1992. At the time, a suggestion had circulated that they might have been blown off course - and that's a long way from their distribution range in North India/Central Asia. David Wells too felt the escaped birds theory was questionable this time.

"A group of 9 vultures, was photographed at roost in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve forest, 12-14 Jan 1992. The 5 separate individuals photographed at roost, appeared wound-free and clean, wing- and tail-tips, in particular, showing none of the dirt and wear expected of such big birds recently out of cages" (Wells, 1999).

Wang Luan Keng explains that the condition of a bird can suggest at its origin - "birds in cages tend to collect dirt, including faeces on their feathers as they cannot bathe or have a sand bath as they would in the wild. Feathers would also be worn badly especially large birds in cages due to abrasions against the cage walls."

In a recent email to the WildBirds Singapore mailing list, Morten Strange, who took the now famous photos of the vultures at Bukit Timah, argues for possibility that the vultures could have wandered off course to Singapore since they are altitudinal migrant (i.e. move between elevations).

"I have to disagree that the vultures here are 'unlikely to be lost migrants", but most likely exactly that! This species is a well-known altitudinal migrant, i.e. they can move at very high altitudes and with great ease over long distances.

At that time (Jan 1992) the vultures circled around Bukit Timah hill, for a while soaring with an adult White-bellied Sea-Eagle. Not only did they dwarf the eagle by size, but more importantly they shifted altitude and distance to the hill in a totally different manner to the sluggish resident eagle.

From a pin-size point high in the sky they shifted down to tree-level in what appeared to be seconds only. And back up again almost as easily, without flapping a beat. It was astonishing to watch. The thought of a caged bird fed dog food did not really come to mind!

Before the nine individuals sighted at Bukit Timah in 1992, Wells also reports similar records of immature Gyps himalayensis turning up mid-winter during what appears to be extended migration in Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia.

Records for the Himalayan Griffon Vulture,
Gyps himalayensis in Singapore

Courtesy of Wang Luan Keng

Status: Accidental.

Records: One previous unconfirmed record for Singapore (Hails 1988). Unconfirmed sightings also reported from Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia (D. R. Wells in litt.).

These spate of sightings may represent an irruption or a range expansion for this species. There is a possibility of these birds being escapes from the cage bird trade.

4 birds said to have occurred in SW Singapore in Dec 1989 (but one of them taken in captivity at nearby Jurong BirdPark was still in immature plumage in March 1992) (Wells, 1999).

Another group of 9, photographed at roost in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve forest, 12-14 Jan 1992 (Smith, Strange, Iora 1). The 5 separate individuals photographed at roost, appeared wound-free and clean, wing- and tail-tips, in particular, showing none of the dirt and wear expected of such big birds recently out of cages (Wells, 1999).

Ref: Hails, C. J. 1988. An annotated checklist of the birds of Singapore. Unpublished.
Wells, D. R., 1999. The Birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula. Academic Press, San Diego.

Range: Normally sedentary resident of Central Asia and North India and are known only to migrate attitudinally in their area of breeding range.

[Note - One person remarked to me via SMS that the sight of these large birds was so impressive, the number on that tree had tripled in his mind! Thankfully naturalists keep records that defy the vagrancies of time.]

Vultures in Southeast Asia

In the first half of the twentieth century two sister culture species, Gyps bengalensis and G. tenuirostris were distributed across, and abundant in Southeast Asia! By the end of the century, only relic populations remain in and adjacent to Cambodia. See "Causes and Effects of Temporospatial Declines of Gyps Vultures in Asia in Conservation Biology, 17(3): 661671 (June 2003)."

These massive declines occured primarily during the middle of the last century and were also reflected in avian scavengers and other large birds. The authors suggest that "these declines probably resulted from the loss of wild ungulates and free-ranging domestic cattle and water buffalo. Other factors such as persecution and pesticides may have played a part in local demographic changes."

South Asian vultures in danger

Presently, three South Asian griffon vulture species, Gyps bengalensis, G. tenuirostris and G. indicus are in threat of extinction from massive numbers of deaths. Last year, this mystery was determined to have been due to the veterinary drug diclofenac; see "Mysterious mass die-off of vultures solved." By Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist News, 28 January 2004.

"The catastrophic decline of griffon vultures in south Asia is being caused not by a mysterious disease, as had been thought, but a common painkiller given to sick cattle.

If the treated animal dies and is eaten by vultures, a single meal can be enough to kill the bird. The scientists who made the discovery now want the drug banned from veterinary use."

An international community of scientists is trying to address this urgent issue - see Vulture Rescue.

Posted at 11:13AM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | email | Raffles Museum news