Training a Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture

Vernon, Rüppell's Griffon Vulture

I’m really lucky that, at the Tropical Butterfly House, Wildlife and Falconry Centre, we get new additions to the bird collection a couple of times a year and I want to tell you about Vernon, the Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture, who arrived a few weeks ago and has secured a place in everyone’s hearts already!

Vernon is 17 years old and belongs to the new Curator who has just started at the zoo, so he has moved into a large aviary with his new ‘buddy’, Alfie, the Turkey Vulture, who was already at the centre. Alfie is considerably smaller, with around a 4 ft wingspan compared to Vernon’s impressive 8 ft wingspan, and is also from a different part of the world.

The Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture is an ‘old world’ vulture, native to Central and Eastern Africa, whereas Alfie is a ‘new world’ vulture, ranging across Central and South America. Despite their differences, though, they are getting on well and Vernon isn’t the bullying type!

Alfie, Turkey Vulture

Some of you may recall that I mentioned Alfie in my first blog post and that he had nipped at my ankles a few times… well Vernon has a LOT more power in his beak – here’s a video which just about shows me with Vernon a couple of times so you can get an idea of the scale of him, he’s a big boy!! BUT he is a big softy and I can feel totally relaxed around him.

I’m sure some of you have found with your birds that, the more frequently you train them, the better they get at learning new things! It’s almost as though you teach them how to learn and they get better and better at it the more they get to practise. Vernon has been learning things for 17 years so he is a real pro – in a completely new environment, with brand new people, AND  another vulture to share his space with – his outlook seemed to be ‘ok cool, whatever!’ and he was performing in the shows within 3 days of moving in.

Vernon in flight

In a matter of weeks, he has learnt to fly quite a steep ascent to a very tall perch (so that he can fly over the audience’s heads) and is doing great with target training to the perches; this is where we are training him to fly to the perch we point him to without being at the perch and calling him to it.

He has also very quickly learnt to do an adorable kind of skipping run, with his wings out for balance, along a narrow wooden beam, which visitors (and I) love to watch.

Vernon doing his best magazine pose!

Vultures are among the most intelligent birds of prey and can be trained in the same way as you would train a parrot using positive reinforcement with food, and are equally excitable! With high intelligence, can sometimes come a SHORT attention span and a curious nature… if you’re keeping Vernon entertained and getting him to do things, he is absolutely fantastic. I made the mistake of not looking at Vernon or getting him to do anything for about 30 seconds in the show once, and he started wandering off! I called him, but by this point he had spotted the Café and RAN in through the doors and started picking up cookies, forks and napkins to investigate them! It was hilariously funny, and thankfully those who were inside the café found it all rather exciting too (although a lot of ‘contaminated-by-vulture’ items had to get thrown away….)

So anyway, I hope I have managed to convince you that not all vultures are evil and scary like the ones in the Jungle Book!

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