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Uncovering the Mysteries of the Powerful Cape Griffon: From Plumage to Behavior

Birds of prey have always fascinated humans with their sharp claws, powerful beaks, and keen eyesight. One such bird is the Cape Griffon or Gyps coprotheres, a large and formidable vulture found in southern Africa.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the identification, plumage, and molts of these magnificent birds.


Field Identification

The Cape Griffon is a large bird with a wingspan of up to 2.6 meters and a weight of 7-11 kg. Its body is covered in brown feathers, and its head and neck are bare and pink.

The feathers on the neck and breast are pale buff, and there is a thin white collar around the neck. The eyes are brown, and the beak is black and hooked, with a sharp tip for tearing flesh.

The legs are pale yellow and have strong talons for grasping prey.

Similar Species

The Cape Griffon is sometimes confused with other vulture species, such as the White-backed Vulture and the Lappet-faced Vulture. However, the Cape Griffon can be distinguished by its bare, pink head and neck and the thin white collar around the neck.

The White-backed Vulture has a white back, while the Lappet-faced Vulture has a distinct ruff of feathers around its neck.


The Cape Griffon has a distinctive plumage, with a pink, bare head and neck and a brown body. However, like all birds, it goes through a series of molts as it grows and ages.


The Cape Griffon has two main molts – the pre-basic molt and the pre-alternate molt. The pre-basic molt occurs during the non-breeding season and involves the replacement of all the feathers on the bird’s body.

This molt usually starts in March and continues until September, with the old feathers being replaced by new ones. The pre-alternate molt takes place during the breeding season and involves the replacement of the flight feathers on the wings and tail.

This molt usually occurs between August and November. During the pre-basic molt, the Cape Griffon’s head and neck feathers are also replaced.

The new feathers are initially pale pink but darken with exposure to sunlight. The feathers on the neck and breast are also replaced, and the white collar becomes more distinct.

The beak and talons also grow during this time and become sharper and more powerful.


The Cape Griffon is a magnificent bird of prey with a distinctive appearance and powerful hunting skills. By understanding its identification and plumage, we can appreciate its beauty and importance in the ecosystem.

As one of the largest birds of prey in southern Africa, the Cape Griffon is a symbol of power and resilience, reminding us of the importance of protecting our natural heritage for future generations to come. , as the article will end with the final subheading.

Systematics History

The Cape Griffon, also known as the Cape Vulture, is a large, scavenging bird of prey found in southern Africa. The species was first described by the French naturalist Francois Le Vaillant in 1798.

Since then, the taxonomy and systematics of the Cape Griffon have been subject to several changes and reclassifications.

Geographic Variation

There is some geographic variation in the appearance and size of Cape Griffons across their range. Birds from the eastern part of their range are generally smaller in size and have paler feather colors than those from the western region.

The birds from the former area are often called the Eastern Cape Griffon, while those from the latter area are referred to as the Western Cape Griffon.


The Cape Griffon was initially classified as a subspecies of the Eurasian Griffon (Gyps fulvus), but it was later recognized as a distinct species. Currently, there are no recognized subspecies for the Cape Griffon.

However, some researchers have suggested that the eastern and western Cape Griffons may be distinct subspecies due to their differences in size and plumage.

Related Species

The Cape Griffon belongs to the family Accipitridae, which includes other vulture species such as the White-backed Vulture and the Lappet-faced Vulture. It is also closely related to the Himalayan Griffon (Gyps himalayensis) and the Indian Griffon (Gyps indicus), which are found in the Himalayan regions and India, respectively.

Historical Changes to Distribution

The Cape Griffon was once widely distributed over much of southern Africa. However, its range has drastically reduced over the years due to human activities such as hunting, poisoning, and habitat destruction.

The species is currently classified as ‘Endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Cape Griffon was once found as far north as Kenya and Tanzania, but it is now extinct in these countries.

Its range has also shrunk in South Africa, where it is currently confined to the eastern and western Cape regions. The Western Cape Griffon population is found primarily in the mountainous areas of the Western Cape, while the Eastern Cape population is found in parts of the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal.

To address the declining populations of the Cape Griffon, conservation efforts have been launched by both government and non-governmental organizations. These include the tagging and monitoring of birds, the establishment of protected areas, and the implementation of anti-poisoning campaigns.


The Cape Griffon is a magnificent bird of prey that has suffered significant declines in population and range due to human activities. Its taxonomic history and geographic variation are interesting facets of its biology that highlight the species’ importance in the ecosystem.

Despite its endangered status, conservation efforts are ongoing, and it is hoped that the Cape Griffon will continue to thrive in southern Africa for generations to come. , as the article will end with the final subheading.


The Cape Griffon inhabits a wide range of habitats, including grasslands, savannas, and mountain ranges. It is primarily found in rugged, inaccessible areas, such as cliff faces and rocky outcrops.

These areas provide the vulture with suitable nesting sites and opportunities to scavenge on carrion. The Western Cape Griffon population is found predominantly in the Cape Fold Mountains, which run parallel to the west coast of South Africa.

The Eastern Cape Griffon population is found in the Drakensberg Mountains, the mountains of Mpumalanga, and the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park.

Movements and Migration

The Cape Griffon is a resident bird, meaning that it does not undertake long-distance migrations. However, it is known to disperse over short distances in search of food and suitable nesting sites.

Young birds are more likely to disperse, often traveling up to 100 kilometers from their natal site before establishing a territory of their own. During the breeding season, Cape Griffons pair up to build nests and raise their chicks.

The breeding season takes place from August to October, with females typically laying a single egg. The parents take turns to incubate the egg, and after 52-60 days, the chick hatches.

The parents continue to feed and care for the chick until it becomes independent, which usually takes another 6-8 months. After the breeding season, the Cape Griffon forms communal roosts, where large groups of birds gather to rest and socialize.

Roost sites are often located near carrion areas, providing the vultures with easy access to food. Roosts can be found on cliffs, large trees, or man-made structures such as transmission towers.

The Cape Griffon is also known to undertake overland movements in search of food, especially during the non-breeding season. These movements can take them into neighboring countries, such as Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, where they may encounter other vulture species.

Threats and Conservation

The Cape Griffon faces several threats to its survival, including habitat loss, poisoning, electrocution, hunting, and disturbance.

Habitat loss due to human activities such as mining, agriculture, and urbanization is one of the most significant threats to the species.

The conversion of grasslands to crop fields or urban areas reduces the availability of nesting and foraging sites for these birds. Poisoning is another major threat to the Cape Griffon.

Farmers and herders often lace the carcasses of dead animals with poison to control predators such as jackals and leopards. Unfortunately, this also exposes vultures and other scavengers to the toxic substances, resulting in significant mortality.

Electrocution is also a problem for the Cape Griffon, with birds colliding with power lines and pylons, resulting in injury or death. Hunting and disturbance can disrupt breeding activities and reduce the overall population size.

To conserve the Cape Griffon, several measures have been put in place. These include the establishment of protected areas, such as the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park and the Mountain Zebra National Park.

This provides the birds with suitable habitat and protection from disturbance and hunting. Anti-poisoning campaigns have also been launched to reduce accidental poisoning of vultures and other wildlife.


The Cape Griffon is an impressive bird of prey that is important for maintaining the balance of ecosystems in southern Africa.

Habitat loss, poisoning, electrocution, hunting, and disturbance pose significant threats to the species, which continues to be an endangered species.

Urgent measures need to be taken to conserve the species, including the protection of suitable habitats, the control of poisoning and hunting activities, and the promotion of public awareness and education about the vulture and its ecosystem. , as the article will end with the final subheading.

Diet and Foraging


The Cape Griffon is a scavenger, relying on carrion as its primary food source. They are typically the first bird on the scene of a carcass, using their keen eyesight to locate it from a distance.

Once a carcass is found, the Cape Griffon lands near it, walking towards it before starting to feed. They are able to detect food from as far as 3 kilometers away.

Cape Griffons are social birds, and they often feed in large groups at carrion sites. Feeding hierarchies exist, with larger and more dominant birds feeding first and forcing smaller birds to wait their turn.

This feeding behavior may also create a more efficient feeding frenzy, with the birds eating up the carrion faster.


The Cape Griffon is known to feed on a range of carcasses, including those of ungulates, such as antelope and zebra, as well as smaller mammals like rodents. They also scavenge on the carcasses of livestock, such as cattle and sheep.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

The metabolism of Cape Griffons has been studied to understand the species’ heat, water, and energy balance. Cape Griffons have a lowered basal metabolic rate compared to other bird species, which allows them to go for days without food.

They use a counter-current heat exchange system to retain heat in their body core by minimizing heat loss from their legs. The ability of Cape Griffons to regulate their body temperature allows them to survive in harsh environments and during extreme temperatures.

They can maintain their body temperature between 39-40 degrees Celsius, which is slightly higher than that of the human body. The extremities, such as the legs and beak, are exposed to much lower temperatures, which helps in dissipating heat.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior


While the Cape Griffon is not known for its vocal prowess, they have been observed making various sounds, including grunts, croaks, and hisses. These vocalizations are believed to be social signals, used to communicate with other birds in a group.

The birds use their vocalizations to indicate their dominance or submission. Calls can also be used to locate other members of a group; a parent may use a specific vocalization to call its young to them.

Cape Griffon chicks rely heavily on call-and-response communication to help find their parents when they return to their nest. Additionally, birds will vocalize during disputes as a means to establish dominance.


The Cape Griffon is an impressive bird of prey, with fascinating feeding and physiological characteristics. Their diet of carrion and ability to go for days without food enable them to survive in harsh environments.

Their lowered basal metabolic rate and counter-current heat exchange system help them to stay warm in cold environments and retain heat. Although they are not well-known for their vocalizations, they have unique calls that are used to communicate with others of the species.

Studying the Cape Griffon’s diet and foraging technique, as well as its vocal behavior, helps to further our understanding of this remarkable bird and its important role in the ecosystem. , as the article will end with the final subheading.



Cape Griffons are powerful birds that can easily glide over rough terrain due to their broad wingspan. They are well adapted to mountainous regions, using updrafts and thermals to soar long distances.

They can fly at an altitude of up to 6,000 meters, allowing them to travel long distances in search of carrion. In addition to flying, Cape Griffons are also capable of walking as they approach a carcass or when they are on the ground feeding.


Cape Griffons are fastidious in their self-maintenance, grooming themselves frequently to remove dirt and parasites from their feathers. They use their talons and beaks to preen and clean themselves, especially after feeding on carrion.

This not only helps them to maintain their feathers’ health and appearance but also serves as a way to remove harmful bacteria from their systems.

Agonistic Behavior

Cape Griffons are social birds and can be aggressive towards each other during feeding or time spent at a communal roost. Dominance fights are common, with the largest and strongest birds usually dominating their smaller counterparts.

Fights usually involve charging each other at full speed, flapping their wings, and grabbing each other. In severe cases, Cape Griffons will use their talons to seriously injure their rivals.

Sexual Behavior

Sexual behavior in Cape Griffons involves courtship rituals, pair bonding, and breeding. Male Cape Griffons engage in courtship displays, such as stretching their necks, flapping their wings, and walking back and forth to attract a female’s attention.

Once paired, the birds build their nest together, with the male collecting and bringing nesting material to the female.


Cape Griffons breed once a year, laying a single egg in a nest built on a rocky outcrop or cliff face. Their breeding season is from August to October, and both parents take turns incubating the egg.

After hatching, the chick is fed regurgitated food, primarily by the mother at first, and both parents work together to care for and protect their offspring. Young Cape Griffons fledge after six to eight months, but they remain close to their parents and may be sustained by their food sources for up to another year.

Demography and Populations

The Cape Griffon is currently classified as an endangered species, with its population in decline. The primary reasons for population decline are habitat loss, poisoning, and hunting by humans.

Despite conservation efforts, the population size of Cape Griffons continues to be a cause for concern. In 2015, the total population of Cape Griffons was estimated to be around 3,000 birds, with the Eastern Cape population being larger than the Western Cape population.

With ever-increasing human activity affecting their habitat, the Cape Griffons future remains uncertain.


The Cape Griffon is an impressive and fascinating bird, with many unique behaviors and adaptations that have helped them survive in harsh environments. Their ability to use thermals to soar and glide over mountainous terrain, along with their self-maintenance and agonistic behavior, are critical to their survival.

The Cape Griffon breeding cycle and population status are also important factors in understanding the species and its future. Greater conservation efforts are urgently required to ensure the survival of these magnificent creatures for generations to come.

The Cape Griffon is a remarkable bird of prey that has captured the imagination of naturalists and bird lovers alike. From its distinctive plumage and feeding habits to its complex social behaviors and breeding cycle, the Cape Griffon is a bird that demands our attention and protection.

However, the species faces significant threats, including habitat loss, poisoning, and hunting, that threaten its survival. It is essential, therefore, that we take immediate steps to conserve the populations of Cape Griffons that remain in the wild and ensure the preservation of this magnificent species for generations to come.

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