Tuesday, November 2, 2010

No booing vultures, nature's clean-up crew

Happy Halloween! And yes, it's Halloween, not April Fool's Day. The following is a true and long overdue love letter to the vulture, full of fantastic fact, not fiction, and no kidding around!

Too often a child's voice will rise and hush in awe as she watches a huge, soaring bird circle in the sky, only to deflate in an "oh," or worse "eww," when she's informed it's "just a vulture."

Vultures are seen hunching, Igor-like, on headstones in Halloween images everywhere, as if waiting to harvest the parts of a passing trick-or-treater.

Yes, vultures should be associated with death, but they're cleaners, not killers!

As scavengers, not predators, vultures' closest association with killing is cleaning up road kill. If they're seen in a graveyard, it's because there must be a good roosting tree there. They may have an impressive wingspan and large talons, but neither is capable of digging six feet down to get a quick meal on the recently interred.

What vultures are capable of, however, is fairly fantastic. Read on, future vulture lovers:

  • There are two types of vultures native to the southeastern U.S., turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), named for their red, turkey-like heads, and black, or southern, vultures (Coragyps atratus), who have black heads - go figure.
  • If you want to identify the difference between these vultures at a distance, the turkey vulture always flies with its wings tilted up, making a broad V. (This is called a "dihedral" by ornithologists.)
  • The black vulture flies with its wings flat.
  • Additionally, the turkey vulture's underwing is half white and half black along the length of the wing, whereas the black vulture's wings look like black "arms" with white "hands".
  • Vultures are well adapted to be the carrion clean up crew - they can eat up to one fifth of their body weight in one sitting!
  • Vultures have special digestive acids that dissolve anthrax, botulism, and cholera. By eating decomposing bodies of wild animals, vultures dramatically reduce the spread of dangerous diseases to humans, including rabies and anthrax.
  • Vultures' naked heads are an adaptation for their messy diets - guts, gore, and bacteria bake right off in the heat of the sun.
  • Their dining might be gross by human ideals, but they don't dine alone. Vultures are social and mate for life.
  • Turkey vultures' wingspan can be as long as six feet and they can weigh up to 25 pounds.
  • A group of vultures is called a "venue" and when circling in the air they are called a "kettle."
  • Vulture poop, because of its strong uric acid content, is actually an antiseptic!
  • Vultures are gentle animals. In fact, their only form of defense is to vomit - counting on the foul smell of the partially-digested meat to keep dangerous intruders away.
  • Vultures soar on rising columns of air, or "thermals" in order to conserve energy during flight. They circle within the thermal's column while gaining altitude for a long flight or searching for food. They rely on a keen sense of smell (the turkey vulture) and keen eyesight (the black vulture) to spot their next carrion meal. North American vultures do not circle dying animals.

These amazing, soaring janitors deserve our thanks and, rather than "ewww," a good deal of awe.

Now that Halloween's creepy creature myths have been debunked, go out and enjoy the tricks and treats of the night. And please, pick up your candy wrappers and any litter you see along the way. The vultures have enough to clean up!


The Vulture Society

16 Cool Facts About Vultures on International Vulture Awareness Day


Photo: Jim Conrad via Wikimedia Commons

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