Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus)

Source: Birds of North America

There are seven species of new world vultures. Of these, the black vulture is one of most abundant.  Black vultures are residents of tropical and warm temperate areas ranging from southern Canada to southern South America, and are native to Costa Rica. They live up to 10 years on average. The black vulture is a large bird with up to 5 inches of wing span, a short tail, and powerful wing beat. This species of vulture has a dark gray to black bald and wrinkled neck and head. It is black overall and has neat white patches underneath the wingtips, which can be seen easily while they are soaring in air. The short, squared tipped tail also serves as distinctive field mark. The white patches underneath the wings distinguish it from turkey vultures, which often occur in the same area with black vultures. Black vultures are scavengers, and are often associated with turkey vultures. The black vulture lacks a sense of smell, so they fly at high altitude above turkey vultures and keep an eye on them (turkey vultures have developed a sense of smell) and then follow them toward the food. They follow successful turkey vultures to carcasses and then aggressively chase them away. Great numbers of black vultures quickly gather at large food sources. While feeding, the species is aggressive and frequently chases off other scavengers including turkey vultures and crows. They feed on carrion of all types and sizes, including donkeys, raccoon, cattle and large mammals. They also capture live prey, most of which are small mammals and birds. They also prey on eggs, nestling and newborn livestock.

Black vultures do not make their nest; they lay eggs on bare ground in caves, hollow trees, brush piles, hollow logs and abandoned buildings. Pairs usually continue to use one nest site for many years as long as breeding is successful. Black vultures are monogamous and maintain long term pair bonds. The pair associate closely year round and may feed their young for as many as eight months after fledgling.

According to the IUCN, the vulture is the species of least concern. Black vulture were considered beneficial scavengers in the 1800’s. But in the early 20th century people become concerned about vultures spreading disease and they trapped, poisoned and shot them until the 1970s. Additional declines in the black vulture population occurred from 1940 to 1970 because of the use of DDT as a pesticide.  When black vultures consume food containing DDT, the pesticide can accumulate in their fatty tissues, and eventually result in eggshell thinning and reduced reproductive success. DDT was banned in 1972. Subsequently, from 1970 to 2014, their population increased. Most populations of black vulture are currently healthy and stable. Black vultures benefit from human activities, including cattle rearing, fishing, and garbage dumps that provide increased food resources, and they decline in the areas where the available food supplies have decreased because of increased sanitation measures. Current threats include environmental contamination such as lead, mercury and insecticides, which can poison black vultures. Collisions with cars are another source of mortality.  The loss of high quality nest sites also affects the species. Forestry practices that reduce the number of tree cavities force black vultures to nest at sites where they are more susceptible to predation.

The species is considered least concern by IUCN; it does not have major threats. But we can protect it from minor threats it is facing, for example by reducing contamination of lead, mercury, pesticides. Black vultures still face threats of illegal shooting in America, and this should be made a punishable offense. Actions should be taken to prevent the loss of high quality nest site. Finally, in the areas where black vultures are abundant, traffic regulation should caution drivers about the species’ vulnerability to reduce the collision of black vultures with cars.


The Black-Crowned Central American Squirrel Monkey

There are just five recognized subspecies of Central American squirrel monkey, and they all reside in southern Costa Rica and northern Panama. The smallest and most threatened, Saimiri oerstedii oerstedii, resides primarily along the southwestern coast of Costa Rica. Male monkeys are the largest and weigh a maximum of 2 pounds–even fully grown! Most monkeys have reddish-orange bodies and arms, a white chest, and gray or brownish-black shoulders and tails. They have a white fur mask around their eyes and a black head, chin, and mustache. Groups of 20-75 monkeys are most common, and they form egalitarian societies that travel around tropical rainforests, foraging for food. They rarely come down from the trees, instead spending most of their lives among the branches eating fruit and insects. Baby monkeys are born once a year, usually at the end of the dry season.

Conservation efforts have been hampered by the prevalent local belief that squirrel monkeys are not native to Costa Rica: many people believe they should not receive the protections afforded to endemic creatures! Luckily, a recent study did genetic testing on many monkey species and determined the squirrel monkey is, in fact, native to Central America (Cropp and Boinski 2000). This means it receives more legal protection, and the punishment for killing or trapping them is much greater.

The squirrel monkey is currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN. Prior to 2008, it had been listed as endangered for almost 20 years. No immediate reason was given for the downgrade in protection status, but it is good news for the little creatures survival! The monkeys live within 21 different protected areas and national parks within Costa Rica, so although they have a lot of territory available, habitat fragmentation is still a concern. Logging and agriculture have reduced available monkey habitat immensely. In fact, habitat fragmentation and deforestation was the initial justification to categorize them as endangered. Squirrel monkeys do have natural predators like eagles and jaguars, but humans are the greatest threat to their survival. Hopefully, with recent conservation efforts, the population will continue to grow back to historical levels.



University of California, Berkeley CalPhotos Photo Database

Wisconsin Primate Factsheets

Sources Cited
Cropp, S., and S. Boinski. 2000. The Central American Squirrel Monkey (Saimiri oerstedii): Introduced Hybrid or Endemic Species? Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 16(3): 350-365.

Image credits to: University of Wisconsin, University of California Berkeley CalPhotos Photo Database, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

National Wildlife Federation Rocky Mountain Regional Center – lots of public lands, wildlife conservation, and “fun” with the new administration!

It’s a fun situation when what you’re trying to protect is being slapped in the face by the new presidential administration. That’s not sarcasm. Really. It’s been an adventure, and we’re definitely making progress! Here at the NWF-RMRC in Denver, my main project is working on public land protection and energy development mitigation with the Dept. of the Interior and the BLM.

Of course, as the intern (or “Project Assistant” which is my actual title), I’m learning so much here because I’m working on so many different projects. From big horn sheep habitat conservation in the foothills to philanthropy event-coordinating at extravagant mansions near downtown Denver to working early childhood conferences and sportsmen expos, I’m pulled in all different directions, and it’s a blast.

My main project, however, is what is most important to me. I started out contacting agency officials to sign a letter I assisted in writing to the new Secretary of the Interior Zinke with the goal to keep leasing reforms in place from 2010 concerning energy development on public lands (which is an entirely new concept to me, having grown up in Texas where the majority of the land is privately owned). These reforms, as some of you will find out in my presentation at the end of the semester, require deeper looks into environmental protection concerns on lands that are being considered for oil and gas development.

My next step, and what I’m really excited about (and why I don’t have any pictures to post yet), is in the beginning of April, I get to go out to South Park, Colorado, speak to businesses, hike in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, and possibly learn to fly fish ALL as a part of my business outreach for the project. Not a bad gig, right?

Anyway, that is pretty much all as of right now that I’m allowed to post concerning my work with the NWF.

Oh, and one more thing: the best thing about Colorado is definitely the beer. 🙂

The Edge of the Earth

Living on the Cape the past two and a half months has taught me what winter really means. I never knew it snowed at the beach until I came here. That being said, the weather hasn’t been able to slow down our work very much… I’ve had countless days of frozen feet and hands at this point. I work for Safe Harbor Environmental as a coastal restoration intern, but I’ve been thrown into many different aspects of what they do here. So far, I’ve planted beach grass to stabilize coastal banks, re-vegetated bare areas with native plants, dug dry wells for stormwater management, helped create permits and environmental management plans for new projects, gone to town meetings and conservation commission hearings, set up erosion control protocols for construction sites, and put in biomimicry to restore dunes. We have many jobs up here, which makes this internship such a huge learning experience and never monotonous. If you’re wondering what “biomimicry” is, it is a coastal restoration system that was set up by Safe Harbor to mimic the random matrix and performance of native vegetation. It mimics performance by collecting and stabilizing sand from storm winds. We use 14 inch wooden shims and place them randomly on beaches and eroded areas to build up sand and restore dunes. Before I arrived here, they were able to build up 22-24 feet of sand in just two years for one of their projects. Here is a photo I took of a biomimicry project we started when I first arrived and has already had quite a bit of sand collection.

My project was initiated after a client consulted us about her bare area outside her house, which is located on a bayside beach in Provincetown. We inspected the site and found that there was vegetation growing around the bare area, but something (maybe a disturbance or drought) caused this bare section to die off. We took soil cores to see if we could find answers, but nothing was able to give us clarity. I was given much of the reigns on this project since it was to become my internship project and together, my supervisor and I decided on a diversity matrix of native vegetation to be planted here in order to see what species (if any) are successful. We based the vegetation choices on what we observed growing in the surrounding area. The plantings were postponed a couple times due to it being blizzard season, but we finally were able to get them in a few weeks ago. I am currently monitoring the site and measuring the woody stems to detect growth. There won’t be much to see for a couple growing seasons, but hopefully I will be able to get some preliminary data (dead or alive and possibly some minor growth) before I leave this place. Here is a photo of me planting at the site. 

Fair winds!

-Caitlin H.(iggins)