Feeding frenzy

It was a regular morning safari. As we were driving through the massive Kanha Meadow (technically a grassland), we chanced upon a dead Spotted Deer. The dead animal was partially eaten around the stomach. We also heard some alarm calls nearby. Hoping for a predator to be around, we decided to wait at the carcass for a little while.

I casually glanced up and noticed a few vultures circling very high up in the sky. I pointed them out to the tourists with me, noting that they will surely feast in the afternoon if the predator does not drag and hide its kill. As we were observing the dead animal, I suddenly saw big shadows running in all directions on the ground. “Vultures,” I exclaimed, as I turned above to see the huge birds, which had dropped down in their altitude by now. Suddenly one of the individual landed on a tree nearby, immediately followed by a few more. Most of these vultures were White-rumped Vultures (Gyps bengalensis), the most common species of vulture in Kanha, along with a few Indian Vultures (Gyps indicus). These first vultures to reach the spot wanted to be sure that there is no danger around and hence decided to take a vantage spot on a nearby tree before dropping down to the ground.

White-rumped Vulture-4
A White-rumped Vulture coming to land on a tree

Then one of the vultures decided to make the move towards the dead animal. In no time at all, the Spotted Deer carcass was invisible to us, surrounded by a mob of vultures. It took the flock no more than ten minutes to completely dispose off the dead animal; each ounce of meat consumed, each of the bones in the body dismembered and dispersed in the surroundings. As the vultures started to disperse, we were surprised to see a much larger Himalayan Vulture (Gyps himalayensis) still gorging on what was remaining of the dead animal. In all the excitement, we had missed on seeing this one come and land on the carcass.

Vultures feeding
The ‘venue’ of vultures feeding on the Spotted Deer carcass

As the feeding frenzy continued, more and more vultures kept on coming to the spot. I was keeping an eye on the vultures in the sky, hoping to see the uncommon Red-headed Vulture come in as well. In stead, we noticed a large and dark shape circling and coming down. This was undoubtedly a Cinereous Vulture (Aegypius monachus), second only to the Himalayan Vulture in size and an extremely rare sight in the whole of Central India. The large vulture landed close to the carcass, but by this time most of it finished. The unfortunate late-comer did not get to eat any of the deer.

Cinerous Vulture
The Cinereous Vulture was unmistakable in the sky because of its large size and dark colour
Cinerous Vulture-2
By the time the Cinereous Vulture landed, most of the kill was over
White-rumped Vulture juvenile
A juvenile White-rumped Vulture sunning itself after the feeding session was over

Once the carcass was completely consumed, the vultures started dispersing. Most of them started sunning themselves with wide-spread wings, a behaviour which has evolved in the vultures to help them keep their feathers clear of parasites. Although we did not get a tiger on the safari, the tourists were extremely happy to see this bit of natural history unfolding in front of their eyes. As for me, very few things make me happier than to see vultures disposing of carcasses without a care in the world; a sight that has unfortunately become rare in the recent past.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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