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Nature’s scavengers are opportunistic carnivores

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Wildlife on Friday, 30 November 2012

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This edited article about animal scavengers originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 790 published on 5th March1977.

vulture and wolves, picture, image, illustration

A vulture joins some scavenging wolves

Not content with having allotted to the jackal, the vulture, the hyena and the wild dog, the roles of being the scavengers of the African bush, Nature seems to have gone out of her way also to make them look as unprepossessing as possible. If they were able to speak, they would all surely point out that she had been most unfair, as all of them play a vital role in the ecology of this vast area. Huge herds of wild animals roam over the open grasslands, and while many of these are killed by and eaten by predators, many more fall to disease, accident or old age, with the result that the ground would be littered with rotting corpses, were it not for the attention of these scavengers.

There are three kinds of hyena in Africa. The spotted hyena, with its diabolical caricature of a human laugh, is the largest and also the most aggressive, to say nothing of being also the most ugly and repulsive looking of all Carnivora. It is one of the most hated of all African animals with its evil reputation for violating graves by digging up recently buried bodies to feed on them. As if this were not enough to give it a bad reputation, it is also in the habit of carrying off sheep and calves, and even children. True to its basically cowardly nature, it will, however, retreat at the slightest suspicion of danger.

The other two kinds of hyena are the striped hyena, and the brown hyena, or strand wolf. The latter species is distinguished by its mantle of long, coarse hair hanging down from the sides of its neck and back, its short, bushy tail and long pointed ears, and the general brown colour of its markings. As scavengers, they are probably more efficient than all the other animal and bird scavengers. A hungry hyena pack usually leaves nothing at all of a corpse, as their powerful jaws enable them to crunch up the bones as well as the flesh.

Almost as loathed, in Africa at least, are the vultures, who are always the first on the scene when an animal dies. When soaring in air currents at a great height, their keen eyes can spot any dying or dead animal from an enormous distance, but despite their great size and powerful hooked beaks, they will not touch prey that shows any sign of life, contenting themselves instead with waiting in the sky until they are sure that life is extinct.

Most vultures have naked heads and necks, so that there are no feathers to get encrusted with congealed blood after they have been probing deep inside the carcass of an animal.

In Egypt, the vulture is well treated and highly appreciated for being an excellent street scavenger, feeding upon all kinds of garbage. After they have eaten their full, vultures tend to sit in one spot in an almost dreamy silence until they become hungry again, when they take off in company in search of the next meal.

Jackals and wild dogs are both predators and scavengers, hunting in packs and attacking and pulling down weak or sickly stragglers from antelope and zebra herds. As scavengers they finish off the remains of a lion’s or leopard’s kill, leaving only the skeleton.

Jackals, although normally associated with Africa, exist in various species in a number of countries. They can be found in Turkey and Greece, and in India and in Egypt, to mention only a few of the places where they can be found. They live on plains and mountains, in forests and fields, and have even been seen in towns.

They travel alone, in twos, or in packs, sometimes of a considerable size. Mainly but not exclusively nocturnal, during the cold season they may still be seen wandering about at all hours of the day, not infrequently even in villages. Their food is of various kinds, and consists not only of freshly killed animals and birds, but also of carrion, and in cases of need, vegetable substances, such as sugar cane.

Like other wild dogs, the jackal sings in the evening. Its cry is even more dismaying than that of the hyena, and like the fox, it has an offensive odour, due to the secretion of a gland at the base of the tail.

All these animal dustmen of the animal world may be evil smelling, ugly and unlovable. But all of them make a valuable contribution to keeping their world a clean and relatively wholesome place.

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