A vulture is a scavenging bird of prey. There are about 20 different species of vulture, divided into the Old World and New World varieties. Old World vultures belong to the family Accipitridae, while New World vultures belong to the Cathartidae. These two groups are not closely related, and their similarities are due to convergent evolution rather than to a genetic relationship.
Many types of vulture have a bald head and neck, which helps the bird stay clean, especially when plunging its head deep into a carcass. Old World vultures typically find their prey by sight, while New World vultures usually rely on their sense of smell. The vulture usually eats dead carcasses, but it may also feed on sick or injured animals. Because its food source is not consistent, the vulture eats as much as it can when food is available, storing it in a portion of the gastrointestinal tract called the crop and digesting it slowly while resting. Food regurgitated from the crop is fed to vulture young.
The vulture is endangered in India and Pakistan due to poisoning from a drug given to farm animals. In the last decade, the vulture population in these countries was diminished by 95%. Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), is given to sick farm animals in order to keep them working despite their pain. When they die, however, the drug is present in their system, and vultures that feed on the carcass are exposed to it. Though vultures can ingest bacteria that cause botulism, cholera, and anthrax with no ill effects, diclofenac is fatal to the birds.
Though vultures are considered unsavory in Western culture, they serve an important function, and their loss is a cause for concern. Without vultures, decaying animals threaten humans and pets with infection. Other scavengers, like rats and feral dogs, spread disease among the living. The declining vulture population also has negative repercussions for traditional cultures in India that expose their dead rather than burying them. Consequently, the use of diclofenac has been banned in India. However, despite the ban and the existence of an alternative drug, meloxicam, some farmers continue to use diclofenac.
The vulture is often used as a symbol of opportunistic exploitation of the dead or of tragedy in Western culture, and people who are thought to profit from death in any way are sometimes referred to as vultures. In Ancient Egypt, however, the vulture was a symbol of motherhood and of lasting romantic love, as the Nubian Vulture of Africa closely bonds with both mates and offspring.