Video: Take a closer look at vulture culture

Matthew SparkesTo most people they are ugly and morbid creatures. With razor-sharp beaks, powerful claws and a habit of stripping the bones of dying animals, it is little wonder they have a bad reputation.Matthew Sparkes

To most people they are ugly and morbid creatures. With razor-sharp beaks, powerful claws and a habit of stripping the bones of dying animals, it is little wonder they have a bad reputation.

But a Norfolk zoo is attempting to change people's perceptions of the vulture, which plays a vital part in eco-systems all over the world and is being driven dangerously close to extinction.

More than 95pc of vultures in India and Pakistan have been wiped out in less than 10 years, poisoned by eating dead cattle treated with the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac. Although the drug is outlawed for animals, batches of the medicine are still being used.

In an effort to restore populations of the magnificent birds, zoos across the world are organising events to mark International Vulture Awareness Day on September 5.

Banham Zoo and its nine vultures were playing their part by holding a competition to give a handful of visitors the chance of feeding the birds up close and personal.

Throughout vulture awareness day, people will be able to buy raffle tickets, and four winners will get to don thick leather gloves and hand feed the huge birds.

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Customers will also get to name the most recent addition to the flock, a Ruppell's Griffon vulture that was hatched in March. The winning name will be pulled from a hat, and the person who suggested it will be given free adoption of the bird.

As well as this, the usual birds of prey show will also be held, with owls, kites and vultures putting on an impressive show of swooping and hunting above the crowd.

One of the vultures still living at Banham Zoo is Foster, who hit the headlines in 2001 when he escaped and evaded keepers for seven days on a jaunt around Norfolk.

'Vultures are such an important bird in the wild because they clean up all the dead animals, and if they weren't there to do it there would

be quite a mess,' said Andy Hallsworth, head of animal training at the zoo.

'Most people have got a pre-conceived idea about vultures, but through our half hour display we change their opinion about them'

DID YOU KNOW?

t Vulture stomach acid is extremely powerful, so that they can safely digest meat infected with bacteria that would kill most animals.

t A group of vultures is known as a wake.

t Vultures are divided into two groups; old world and new world, which are not very closely related.

t Vultures do not build nests.