"Why Vultures Might Just Be the Smartest Birds Above the Block"

"The birds are widely reviled for their carrion-eating ways. But an evolutionary history of scavenging has forged a creative, cunning and wide-ranging mind."

"The two lappet-faced vultures had been together for just a few months, yet the massive birds, with their watchful, featherless gargoyle faces and their dark mottled body plumage so plush it looks like fur, had already mastered the avian version of monkey-see-monkey-do.

Kenya, the female vulture, hopped onto a tree stump in the middle of their outdoor enclosure at the Maryland Zoo. Shredder, the male vulture, hopped onto another stump nearby. Kenya jumped back to the ground. Shredder waited a beat and did likewise. He lumbered over to a corner of the enclosure and spread his wings wide to their nearly seven-foot span, exposing fluffy white feathers that covered his legs like a pair of bloomers. Kenya positioned herself a few inches behind him and added novelty to the mimicry, unfolding first one wing, then half of the other, then the second half: Ta-da!

It’s called mirroring behavior, Jen Kottyan, the zoo’s bird curator, said, and it was a promising sign. Lappet-faced vultures, native to Africa and named for the flaps of skin, or lappets, that dangle from either side of their head, are among the world’s most endangered birds. In 1991, the Maryland Zoo became one of the first in the United States to successfully breed the vultures in captivity, and Ms. Kottyan predicted that the newly installed pair, now 2-and-a-half years old, would prove similarly obliging."

Natalie Angier reports for the New York Times November 12, 2023.

Source: NYTimes, 11/13/2023