Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Painted Vulture, An American Mystery Bird

The painted vulture from The Doomsday Book of Animals by David Day

The Painted Vulture is one of the mysteries of North American ornithology. In the travels of naturalist William Bartram, published in 1791 he describes a new species of vulture that he saw in Florida. 
It was 'a beautiful bird, near the size of a turkey buzzard, but his wings are much shorter, and consequently he falls below that admirable bird in sail. I shall call this bird the painted vulture. The bill is long and straight almost to the point, when it is hooked or bent suddenly down and sharp; the head and neck bare of feathers nearly down to the stomach, when the feathers begin to cover the skin, and soon becomes long and of a soft texture, forming a ruf or tippet, in which the bird by contracting his neck can hide that as well as his head; the bare skin on the neck appears loose and wrinkled, which is of a deep bright yellow color, intermixed with coral red; the hinder part of the neck is nearly covered with short, stiff hair; and the skin of this part of the neck is of a dun-purple color, gradually becoming red as it approaches the yellow of the sides and forepart. The crown of the head is red; there are lobed lappets of reddish orange color, which lay on the base of the upper mandible. But what is singular, a large portion of the stomach hangs down on the breast of the bird, in likeness of a sack or wallet, and seems to be a duplicate of the craw, which is naked and of a reddish flesh color, unless when it is loaded with food, (which is commonly, I believe roasted reptiles) and then it appears prominant. The plumage of the bird is generally white or cream color, except the quill feathers of the wings and two or three rows of the covets, which are of a beautiful dark brown or black; the tail which is large and white is tipped with this dark brown or black; the legs and feet of a clear white; the eye is encircled with a gold colored iris; the pupil black.
After his death Bartram was accused of being a liar as no specimen of this white vulture came to light. Joel Asaph Allen in particular argued that the Painted Vulture was mythical and that Bartram mixed elements of different species to create this bird. Allen claimed that the birds' behavior, as recorded by Bartram, is in complete agreement with the caracara's. For example, Bartram observed the birds following wildfires to scavenge for burned insects and box turtles. Such behavior is typical of caracaras and Bartam did not report the caracara in his notes.
In 1933 Francis Harper discovered Bartram's original notes and discovered that the pouch was actually the vulture's crop. One note dated 1775 also claimed that Bartram's description was from a specimen he had taken while it had been scavenging dead reptiles after a grass fire. Harper noticed that Bartram's notes were considerably altered and expanded in the printed edition and that the original report did not mention the tail. As a result the description is not that of a mythical bird at all but is an extremely detailed and accurate description of the king vulture
King Vulture created by me for the game Zoo Tycoon 2
In addition a second description of the bird by someone other than Bartram has since been discovered. Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, in his 'History of Louisiane' published in 1758 mentions 'the king of birds' which he describes as 'smaller than the eagle of the Alps; but is a much finer bird, being almost entirely white, and having only the extremity of the quills black. As it is rather rare, it is prized among the natives who pay a high price for the wing quills as an adornment for the peace-pipe.'
Since then several ornithologists have attempted to prove the former existence of a King Vulture relative in Florida at this late date, suggesting that the population was in the process of extinction and finally disappeared during period severe frosts at the beginning of the 18th century. Additionally, William McAtee, noting the tendency of birds to form Floridian subspecies, suggested that the white tail and brown wings could be a sign that the Painted Vulture was a subspecies of the King Vulture.
Others have suggested that it was a separate species (S. sacra), pointing out that genus Sarcoramphus had a wider distribution in the past. The Kern Vulture (S. kernense) lived in southwestern North America during the Pliocene and some have thought that this fossil bird was the same as the modern species. This may have been an ancestral form to the relic painted vulture. So was the painted vulture a subspecies or even exist?  Until fossils are found of this mysterious vulture or a specimen rediscovered in some museum basement we may never know the truth.

 The fullest account of the painted vulture I know of is in 'The Doomsday Book of Animals' by David Day, where I got most of this information.While an old book (some of it's extinct animals have been rediscovered alive and well) I highly recommend it.
While way to small to be associated with America's thunderbird reports one must keep in mind that the turkey vulture and black vulture may not have been the only historical vulture species in the United states.
Painted Vulture created by me for Zoo Tycoon 2

For your own painted vulture for Zoo Tycoon 2 go to Zoo Tycoon Wildlife's Downloads page

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