A Bird’s Eye View

How does a vulture see the world? So much of my research involves the belief that I have some understanding of this, yet how could an animal that spends its entire life on the ground, possibly understand the perceptions of one that spends its entirety in the air. Others have recognized the err in trying to study vultures from the savannah floor and have taken to the air. In fact so much so that when I first decided to study vultures one of the first things my previous advisor said to me was “just promise not to use an ultralight.” Several brilliant and dedicated field researchers have lost their lives in airplanes. Even one of the people with whom I work who has used planes to study vultures has been in several crashes of his own, so its no wonder the concern. Still while studying the foraging behavior, habitat use, and movement of vultures has worked quite well from the seat of my car, I am still curious as to what the landscape must look like from the air. So when I got the chance to fly up in a two-seater plane I was very excited.
The plane I would be taking was going over Athi River area just some 50 km from Nairobi. The Athi-Kapiti plains have proved important for vultures with one of my tagged Lappets spending nearly a month there feasting on the afterbirth and sick calves of Athi’s own migratory wildebeest herds (that move from there to Nairobi National Park). As I sat down in the tiny blue aircraft and smiled at the pilot, I hoped that my usual airsickness wouldn’t ruin the journey. I then buckled my seatbelt – always a good idea when the plane has no doors – and put on my helmet.
“See the ball at the end of your armrest,” said the pilot. “That’s the throttle, so try not to pull it.”
I looked towards my feet. “And see the peddles, those control the steering so try not to press them.” As I wondered how I would curl into a ball in this tiny plane so as not to press anything accidently, the pilot checked the fuel gauge and promptly took off.
I’ve seen savannahs from the air before but never with vultures so strongly in mind. No wonder they can find carcasses so quickly. You could see for kms on the ground below flying just a few hundred meters up and the sky around was so clear. I could easily imagine watching my fellow vultures drop from the clouds and quickly soaring over to follow them down to the food. The wildebeest and zebras below took no notice of us and we could simply scan the ground for food. Everything looked like a toy model – with trees sticking up like toothpicks and the height of the grass almost unperceivable. It was simply stunning and I was sad, though relieved, when it was time to land. What a gift it must be to see the world this way everyday as a vulture does!

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