High flyer

Everyone knows that birds fly high in the sky. But how high?

A quick check of the internet reveals some astounding observations. Flight heights for some vultures, condors, storks, and swans exceed 20,000 feet.*

The record-holder is Rüppell's griffon vulture (Gyps rueppellii). How do we know? One of these poor things was sucked into the turbine blades of a jet airliner at 36,100 feet. The altitude was noted by the pilot before he shut down the damaged engine and made an emergency landing in West Africa’s Côte d'Ivoire. A smattering of bird parts and feathers (Can you say Kung Pao chicken?) were used to identify the species.** Why this scavenger was fooling around at that height is another question altogether.

A human being in a 37,000 feet atmosphere would black out for lack of oxygen. But not this bird! It was built for such daring feats. Adaptations include keen eyesight, a huge wing to body ratio, contour feathers that insulate and streamline, and a unique form of red protein in its bloodstream that moves oxygen around in ways that would make Lance Armstrong jealous.

While immaterial to their flying abilities, this carrion-eater also has the ability to consume rotten meat. Does that dead gazelle have anthrax? Botulism? Cholera? No problem, This griffon vulture can consume it all; its gut-of-iron can digest all the bad bug-a-boos. Apparently, it can not only fly as high as an airliner; it can eat airline food.

Rüppell's griffon vulture. Image from    https://kidszoo.org/our-animals/ruppells-griffon-vulture/    (accessed 10 Aug 2019).

Rüppell's griffon vulture. Image from https://kidszoo.org/our-animals/ruppells-griffon-vulture/ (accessed 10 Aug 2019).

Rüppell's griffon vulture is an African species. It is native to a band of countries that runs across the center of the continent like a belt: Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Habitat loss threatens its future; the IUCN Red List has moved this bird to “critically endangered” status and reports that its world population of 22,000 individuals continues to decrease. Sadly, there is no monitoring scheme or action recovery at present.***

I captured a shot of this squadron on the ground in the Serengeti (Tanzania). They were just cleaning up after dinner. Coloration patterns—particularly on the feathers of the bird on the far right suggest Rüppell's griffon vulture. I’m guessing that the bird on the left is a juvenile. I welcome feedback from a real ornithologist out there who could confirm/deny our identifications.

I captured a shot of this squadron on the ground in the Serengeti (Tanzania). They were just cleaning up after dinner. Coloration patterns—particularly on the feathers of the bird on the far right suggest Rüppell's griffon vulture. I’m guessing that the bird on the left is a juvenile. I welcome feedback from a real ornithologist out there who could confirm/deny our identifications.

The namesake of the species comes from Eduard Rüppell, a German naturalist who was something of a rare bird himself. He was among the first wave of Western explorer/adventurers in the Bible Lands, making several expeditions into northeast Africa.

As early as 1817 he visited Egypt and ascended as far as the first cataract (Aswan). Note that this was a half-century before the better-known Victorian explorers such as Livingstone, Stanley, Burton, and Speke.

In 1821 Rüppell returned to Africa, venturing into the Sinai. He was purportedly the first European to visit the Gulf of Aqaba. He continued up the Nile to the unexplored regions associated with modern Sudan and Ethiopia. All along the way he worked to improve contemporary maps and build impressive zoological and ethnographic collections. The latter included ancient Ethiopian manuscripts.

Specimens sent back to Europe by Rüppell were used to help produce Philippe Jakob Crtzschmar’s Atlas zu der Reise im nordlichen Afrika (“Atlas of Travels in Northern Africa”) published in 1826. Rüppell’s own experiences were published in his own two-volume set, Travels in Abyssinia, published in 1838 (the same year that Edward Robinson, the American explorer and biblical geographer, arrived in Cairo).

“Vegetation below the snow line at Mt. Selki in the Semien Province.” This drawing was made by F. C. Vogel after a sketch by Rüppell himself. See the work by Ib Friis, “Travelling Among Fellow Christians (1768-1833): James Bruce, Henry Salt and Eduard Rüppell in Abyssinia,” pages 161-194 in Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica (2013).****

“Vegetation below the snow line at Mt. Selki in the Semien Province.” This drawing was made by F. C. Vogel after a sketch by Rüppell himself. See the work by Ib Friis, “Travelling Among Fellow Christians (1768-1833): James Bruce, Henry Salt and Eduard Rüppell in Abyssinia,” pages 161-194 in Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica (2013).****

Back in Frankfurt, Rüppell co-founded and directed the Senckenburg Natural History Society.

In honor of his work, the Royal Geographical Society of London awarded Rüppell its prestigious Gold Medal in 1839. Even more impressively, some 79 different plant and animal species were named after him. Among them was the high flying Rüppell's griffon vulture (Gyps rueppellii).


*See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_birds_by_flight_heights (accessed 10 Aug 2019).

**Laybourne, Roxie C. The Wilson Bulletin, Wilson Ornithological Society 86/4 (Dec 1974): 461–462. Find it online at https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/wilson/v086n04/p0461-p0462.pdf (accessed 10 Aug 2019).

***Check the status of Rüppell's griffon vulture and other endangered species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List at https://www.iucnredlist.org///www.iucnredlist.org/species/22695207/118595083 (accessed 11 Aug 2019).

****This article is available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/260070049_Travelling_Among_Fellow_Christians_1768-1833_James_Bruce_Henry_Salt_and_Eduard_Ruppell_in_Abyssinia (accessed 10 Aug 2019).


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I love Africa but my regular summer work is in Israel-Palestine.

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