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VULTURIDAE, NOT CATHARTIDAE



Ron Orenstein wrote..

> Just to clarify: there are two groups of birds called vultures.  The
> Cathartidae or New World Vultures (including the two condors) are 
> probably most closely related to storks,

Cathartidae is actually a junior synonym of Vulturidae. The latter 
has priority, and is now coming back into widespread use. Which is 
OK. Olson recognised this in 1985 and more recent technical 
literature has followed his lead. Of course, if you are a strict 
follower of Drs. Sibley and Ahlquist, vulturids (which they called 
cathartids) are a subfamily of ciconiids. 

On another note, Lammergeiers do not drop stones onto eggs: 
this is a well-known behaviour for the Egyptian vulture (_Neophron_) 
instead. Egyptian vultures generally perform this task when 
confronted with ostrich eggs - thus the behaviour is always observed 
on the African plains. BUT Egyptian vultures also occur in 
southern Europe and, when artificially introduced to 'planted' 
ostrich eggs, they still know and successfully practise the 
egg-cracking behaviour. Until a few thousand years ago, however, 
ostriches lived across southern Europe and throughout Asia: 
presumably the vultures that have never been to Africa still have a 
genetic memory of encountering ostrich eggs.

To my knowledge, ostrich eggs are the only eggs that vultures require 
stones for, so use of stones on the eggs is not simply applying a 
known behaviour to a new situation.

_Neophron_ also lived in North America during the Pleistocene (and is 
preserved at Rancho La Brea). 

Lammergeiers, meanwhile, are famous for carrying bones and tortoises 
aloft (Egyptian vultures do the egg cracking on the ground), then 
dropping them onto rocks so that the contents can be revealed (marrow 
and guts respectively). I like Lammergeiers because they have this 
superb method of harrying mountain-dwelling mammals (chamois and 
ibex) by dive-bombing and surprise swooping: the idea being to 
startle the mammal so it loses its balance and then plummets to its 
death. Presto, Lammergeier lunch. Needless to say, there are 
ancecdotal reports of Lammergeiers (occassionally successfully) 
trying this out on human rock-climbers.

"Who said, while waiting handcuffed in the rain --"
"It's got to be Oscar Wilde"

DARREN NAISH
darren.naish@port.ac.uk