The Lappet-faced Vulture (Torgos tracheliotos) is distributed throughout many parts of Africa, mostly in arid, open country. Sadly, they have recently been classified as endangered. Big and powerful and in the same family as the eagles, they are known to take live prey, although mostly they are, like other vultures, consumers of carrion.
I was first made aware of the species when, as a kid, I came across a copy of a book called Artist Naturalist in Ethiopia, in the library of the Royal Ontario Museum’s well known bird curator, James L. Baillie. The book contains journal notes by American bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes, on a wildlife collecting expedition to Ethiopia, along with a variety of paintings of birds painted quickly from live or freshly dead specimens – mostly species I was then unaware of. The paintings had to be done quickly, under field conditions, and impressed me very much. In those days color photography was nascent, and since the colors of un-feathered parts of birds could change quickly after death, and never be preserved accurately in museum specimens, artists would record them in what were called “soft-part studies”. Fuertes died tragically in a level crossing accident soon after his return from Africa, adding poignancy to the art he created.
Since then, I’ve been to Africa myself, and the “soft part” colors of birds are less of a mystery and more easily accessed by artists. In the case of this species, they vary significantly between individuals, as does the configuration of the head, and the various wattles and carbuncles and feathering or lack thereof on the head. But the species lives up to its name by having a fold of skin to other side of the upper neck, as I have shown in this portrait.
Many people deem bare-headed birds such as vultures, turkeys and Guinea fowl as “ugly”. I hope this study helps to show the bird as I see it, accurately, I trust, but also as an important part of the ecological whole, inherently dignified, performing its functions within the context of a world primal and more natural than what we contrive for ourselves with steel, concrete, glass and plastic. They are the current manifestation of a three billion year journey of evolution. To me they are beautiful, magnificent and a worthy subject I greatly enjoyed painting.
Lappet-faced Vultures have weighed in at over twenty pounds, making them one of the largest of raptors still extant. Long may they soar over the hot savannah.
This painting is in oils on a canvas panel, 12 by 9 inches.
Barry Kent MacKay