Meet 7-year-old Godric and 15-year-old Hedwig, two of the vultures at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. (Video by Skyler Ballard)

Good morning, vultures.

With some graceful hops and a few jumps, 7-year-old Godric and 15-year-old Hedwig practically run down a rocky hill and into the grassy area next to the giraffe pen. The long-neckers placidly observe the giant white birds and continue to crunch their breakfast of elm tree branches.

This pair of African Cape griffon vultures woke up on the right side of their perch this morning, and clearly trust and like their African Rift Valley keeper, Brooke Powell, who beckons them down the hill. It doesn’t hurt that she’s got a container packed with a meat mixture for their breakfast.

Godric and his female buddy, Hedwig, are minus Nesher, a 30-year-old Eurasian griffon vulture who rounds out their little pack at the zoo, but they’re used to it. Nesher is a highly independent sort who likes her alone time. She’s enjoying a private meal with another keeper.

Powell tosses hunks of meat on the ground for the birds, who squabble over who gets what, also known as scuttling.

“In the wild, you’ll see vultures doing that,” Powell said. “They bump into each other and they speed up their metabolism. That’s a perfectly natural behavior.”

Who are these two?

Extroverted Godric loves new visitors or, as he might call them, his new best friends. He’s a curious fellow who loves to learn new enrichment with his keepers or explore a new environment. Hedwig is the “queen bee” of the three vultures and rules the roost. She’s a smarty-pants who also loves to train.

Vulture couture

The 9- to 10-pound creatures are bedecked in white feathers, minus their feather-free skulls. They have a thick ring of fluffy feathers around their neck that resembles a fancy, little scarf. Their long necks are a pretty shade of light lavender, and there are two lavender circles lower on their necks that help with thermoregulation, so they can sense where to fly. And their fluffy, feather-covered legs make it look like they’re wearing pantaloons.

Vultures eat dead things, right?

You bet. In addition to their meat mixture, Godric and Hedwig love a good frozen rat. They also regularly get to pick at parts of a carcass, usually goats, which get donated to the zoo. Fun fact: Vultures can go several days without food. Keepers feed them about three times a week, and on one of those days, they get meat and a rat. “They can eat the equivalent of five hamburgers in 3 minutes,” Powell said.

Nature’s cleaner-upper

Vultures help stop the spread of diseases by cleaning up the carcasses of animals. However, in their native home of South Africa, they’ll sometimes eat a carcass that’s been poisoned and, in turn, die from that poison. It’s not because they hone in on poisoned animals, though. It’s due to poachers. When a poacher kills something illegally, such as a giraffe, they could get caught because rangers could track them down after seeing vultures flying over the animal. So the illegal hunters got the bright idea to poison the animals they killed, thus killing the vultures, thus impeding the rangers from finding them.

Sounds like they might be endangered.

Correct again. African Cape griffon vultures are endangered, but a conservation effort is in full throttle in South Africa. Here in the U.S. we have turkey vultures, with black feathers and red heads. They’ve been spotted in Colorado Springs and are not endangered.

A clean vulture is a happy vulture.

Despite their penchant for eating dead stuff, they’re very clean creatures. Their nares, or nostrils, put out a salt secretion that helps clean their beaks. And their heads are bald, which means they don’t have feathers that could harbor bacteria. The birds also love to sun themselves first thing in the morning by spreading out their wings, an impressive 8- to 9-foot wingspan. The UV rays from the sun kill any bacteria on their wings. And vultures love a bath. In the wild, they’re often seen going straight to a water source to clean off after they eat.

Long live the vulture

The birds live 30 to 40 years, in the wild and captivity. And no, Godric and Hedwig aren’t a breeding pair. Godric is still too young and hasn’t shown breeding behavior, though that might come in the next year or two, as vultures become of age around 8 or 9.

Contact the writer: 636-0270

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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