Cape Vulture (Gyps coprotheres)

Cape Vulture

[order] ACCIPITRIFORMES | [family] Accipitridae | [latin] Gyps coprotheres | [authority] Forster, 1798 | [UK] Cape Vulture | [FR] Vautour chassefiente | [DE] Kapgeier | [ES] Buitre del Cabo | [NL] Kaapse Gier


Monotypic species


Members of the genus Gyps are vultures varying in size from medium to large. They have an elongated head with a long and heavy beak. The head and neck are bare, but for a covering of woolly down. At the base of the neck is a ruff of long, narrow, pointed feathers. This is a social genus, usually nesting in colonies in trees or on rocky crags. There are seven species, covering much of Africa, southern Europe and into Asia. Of there, two (the African White-backed Vulture Gyps africanus and the Indian White-backed Vulture Gyps bengalensis ) are arguably more logically places in a genus of their own. They differ in that they have 12 tail feathers (not the 14 that all other Gyps have), their nesting habits differ, and they have a distinctive coloration that differs significantly from the rest of the genus.

Physical charateristics

The head and neck of the adult bird are covered with sparse white down, the neck terminating at its base with a buff to grey coloured ruff. The rest of the upper parts are pale buff, although the feathers of the back have darker centres. The tail and primary flight feathers are black, the secondaries dark grey-brown. From underneath the crop area is dull brown surrounded by white down. Feathers of the under-side are cream to light stone colour, darker on the body, becoming paler towards the under-wing coverts which are almost white. The bare skin of the face is bluish grey, the eyes yellowish brown, the cere and feet grey. There is no noticeable size difference between the sexes.

wingspan min.: 240 cm wingspan max.: 260 cm
size min.: 100 cm size max.: 115 cm
incubation min.: 45 days incubation max.: 55 days
fledging min.: 80 days fledging max.: 90 days
broods: 1   eggs min.: 1  
      eggs max.: 1  


Africa : South. Mozambique: 10-15 pairs near Swaziland;
Namibia: declined to extinction – just six non-breeding birds remain;
Swaziland: declined to extinction.
The total population was estimated to be 4,400 pairs in 84 colonies in 1994, and was implied to
have declined to c.4,000 pairs by 1999.


A long-lived carrion-feeder specialising on large carcasses, it flies long distances over open country, although usually found near mountains, where it breeds and roosts on cliffs. The Cape Vulture is found in open mountainous country and plains in the most southerly parts of the African continent.


Nests are built in colonies of from six to a hundred or more pairs on cliffs. They are placed on ledges, not necessarily inaccessible, but often overhung. They are built mostly of grass, sometimes of bracken or heather and sometimes with a few sticks laid round them. Some of the nesting material is gathered near the colony and pairs rob sticks from other nests nearby. An average nest is eighteen inches across by six inches deep, with a shallow depression nine inches across in the centre, but they vary from a scrape with a few tufts of grass to elaborate structures decorated with sticks. They are used year after year, and become plastered with droppings in the course of the season. Nest construction takes up to two months. One egg is laid any time between April and July although all eggs in a colony are laid over a fairly short period. Both sexes incubate for more than 52 days. The young grow more rapidly than those of many other large vultures, fledging happening at 80 to 90 days. They are brooded closely by a parent (probably both sexes) in the early stages, but in the later stages are left alone in the nest for long periods.

Feeding habits

Carrion, usually fresh. It is not uncommon to find a quantity of vegetable matter, including fresh grass, in their pellets. This is, however more likely to have been ingested with stomach contents of carcases than eaten directly.

Video Cape Vulture


copyright: Jordi Sargatal


This species is listed as Vulnerable since it has a small population which is likely to continue declining unless ongoing conservation efforts, including public awareness programmes and supplementary feeding, as well as efforts to reduce the threat from powerlines, are successful.
Accidental poisoning on agricultural land, electrocution on pylons, collision with overhead cables and with vehicles, food-stress during chick-rearing, persecution (including collection for traditional medicines), disturbance at colonies, and drowning. Unmistakable in its adult plumage, this is a huge pale-coloured vulture with black wing and tail quills contrasting sharply with its body plumage. The young are a little like those of the African White-backed Vulture (Gyps africanus), but are a lot bigger, paler-coloured about the shoulders and have a ruff of lance-shaped feathers, not down.
Formerly more widespread, it is now mostly confined to the mountainous regions of South Africa, descending from these into the plains to feed. It is not present in the driest deserts. It roosts communally on a crag, or in a tree from which it takes to the air as soon as the air currents permit in the morning. It typically travels great distances during the day and returns in the evening to roost, behaving in this respect like other Griffons. On the wing it soars at a great height, often almost out of sight from the ground, and descends to feed when available.
At a carcase it behaves just like other Griffons, making threat displays to secure dominance over other vultures. The threat display consists of bounding forward with the wings spread, similar to the Eurasian Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus ). The neck is often stretched to maximum length and held stiffly vertical.
Many will collect at a carcase and in some South African areas must travel long distances to do so, since the majority of dead domestic animals are buried.
The present world population of Cape Vultures is estimated at less than 12,000 individuals (1997) – the Western Cape Province of South Africa, centre of their traditional home, now houses only about 80 birds, including just 25 breeding pairs.
Cape Vulture status Vulnerable


Most birds remain within foraging range of about 100 km of nesting and roosting colonies. Some disperse over long distances throughout S African subcontinent (e.g. into Zambia and C Mozambique), especially juveniles which concentrate in nursery areas remote from colonies.

Distribution map

Cape Vulture distribution range map

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