The world is a scavenger’s stage
Corinne Kendall— 10 March 2010 — in East Africa Project Share
We sat at a carcass for nearly five hours yesterday. Not because nothing came, but because the vultures refused to leave. Jackals found our carcass early and I’m afraid the birds didn’t get much, but it didn’t stop them from coming. We had 11 African white-backed vultures, 5 Lappet-faced vultures, and a couple of Hooded vultures. The white-headed vultures have been noticeably absent but the Hoodeds seem to be coming back this year.
Carcass watching is the definitive in the hurry up and wait principle. Something one learns to live by when in Africa. There is usually a long pause after we put the carcass out where you wait for the scavengers to find it. Once the first discoverer arrives, the chaos ensues. Birds seem to drop out of the sky from nowhere and there is a feeding frenzy of epic proportions as everyone goes for whatever they can grab. During this frenzy of birds, jackals often race in at full speed and like a bowling ball hitting its mark, the birds go flying into the air like pins. The jackals are quick to grab but slow to consume, especially on the tough parts like the head. So there is a lot of back and forth between mammal and bird as the jackals get no peace while they try to gulp down the meat. Then everything simmers and the birds slowly leave as the food disappears. By the end only a few birds remain but they try to make the wait worth their while by scraping every last tiny piece off of the bones. When there is nothing left the birds preen and stretch out in the grass, their full crops sinking below their bodies. Then finally after what is usually hours, a nice wind blows and the last few birds take off.
After all is consumed we go to investigate the area where the carcass has been consumed, mainly we are looking to see what has been left behind and how the insect scavengers are doing – the ants, beetle, and flies. Stepping out of the car after hours of containment is an absolute joy and I cherish my few moments of walking around. Having watched the scavenger story unfold you feel like you are standing on the stage of some great play. You remember when the jackal jumped to get the Lappet-faced vulture right from this spot. You can see the grass pressed down where that white-backed vulture took a nap. You find the small pile that you watched the jackal dispel after its belly was too full. Yet despite the confidence that you know the scene, you come to realize that somehow you have misplaced the props – the bones are nowhere to be found. So you wander around realizing that the bush you were so sure the bones were behind has only a few feathers and the dirt clump that you saw the Hooded vulture on is looking very similar to the other dirt clump just a few feet away. After a long steady sweep though, we find the bones and the rest of the aftermath of the great play. Gathering them up we weigh the remains and I note how much meat is left if any. Driving off, you realize the actors may have flown away, but the stage remains, awaiting the next great scavenger play.
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