Science Snippets

Using an Ethogram as a guide to understanding Hooded Vulture breeding behaviour

Lindy Thompson, the EWT’s Birds of Prey Programme

Most vulture species are highly threatened, and their populations are declining. Researchers have been focusing more on vultures in recent years, and certain topics, such as their movements, are becoming well studied. However, other topics, such as how diseases affect vultures, and behavioural studies on vultures, have not been as popular. These areas need more attention because understanding all aspects of a species’ behaviour can help inform conservation efforts.

Studies on an animal’s behaviour can be enhanced using an ‘ethogram’. An ethogram clearly defines, describes, and classifies distinct behaviours commonly exhibited by a species. Researchers use ethograms as templates to record and understand the species’ behaviour. Importantly, ethograms can help to standardise data collection across different studies, which increases objectivity, and allows comparisons of results from different researcher teams.

Researchers from the Endangered Wildlife Trust and the University of KwaZulu-Natal recently produced the first ethogram describing the nesting and breeding behaviours of the Critically Endangered Hooded Vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus). They gleaned information from 14 Hooded Vulture nests in South Africa’s Lowveld region, from direct observations and over 400,000 camera photographs. The team described 28 behaviours exhibited by Hooded Vultures at their nests, and they grouped these behaviours into five categories: ‘Body Care’, ‘Movement’, ‘Nesting’, ‘Resting’ and ‘Social’. In their ethogram, the researchers also provided photographic records of each behaviour for researchers to use as references. Many of the behaviours exhibited by Hooded Vultures may be common to other tree-nesting vulture species, so this ethogram should be helpful for other research teams studying the breeding of other vulture species globally. It will also be used for further investigating the behaviour of Hooded Vultures in South Africa, and the next step is to look at activity budgets.

A juvenile Hooded Vulture on its nest in a Jackalberry tree. © L. Thompson/UKZN

The research team comprised the EWT’s Dr Lindy Thompson (the camera trap photos we used were collected during Lindy’s postdoctoral studies on Hooded Vultures), Prof. Colleen Downs (who supervised Lindy’s postdoc from the University of KwaZulu-Natal), and Fiona Fern, who is soon to start her PhD on raptor health with the EWT’s Birds of Prey Programme.

The study was funded by the Rufford Small Grants Foundation, GreenMatter, and the National Research Foundation (ZA).

The study was titled ‘An ethogram for the nesting and breeding behaviour of the Hooded Vulture Necrosyrtes monachus’, and you can access it here: