Summit Outside: The vulture: one of the most sadly misunderstood creatures

Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily

Personified by Disney as goofy, dumb, stupid characters, vultures usually show up to add a sense of foreboding to a movie or to foreshadow something bad that will happen soon.

Vultures are much maligned. As natural garbage collectors, vultures are vital to our ecosystem, so why do we feel this way? Is it because we perceive them as ugly?

If you’ve gone looking for raptors on a clear day, you might catch sight of a large, soaring bird in the distance. If it’s soaring with its wings raised in a “V” and making circles, it’s likely a turkey vulture.

They are large, dark birds with long, broad wings; larger than other raptors with the exception of eagles and condors. When soaring, turkey vultures hold their wings slightly raised, making a “V” when seen from the front.

Vultures are one of very few creatures capable of effortless soaring for hours at a time. Many believe that the sight of soaring vultures is a sure signal that a dead animal can be found nearby, but this is not always true.

Vultures are intelligent creatures who love to play. When a vulture discovers a thermal, it is able to hold its wings motionless, and allow the warm air to carry it in large, sweeping circles, toward the sky. You may see a group of them soaring gracefully, just enjoying life.

For years, it was believed that all vultures were raptors. The vultures inhabiting the American continents actually share a common ancestor with storks and ibises.

American vultures are considered New World vultures. European, African and Asian vultures are recognized as Old World vultures. There are 15 species of Old World vultures and seven species of New World vultures.

These birds ride thermals in the sky, and use their keen sense of smell to find fresh carcasses. The part of their brains responsible for processing smells is particularly large, compared to other birds. They are a consummate scavenger. They do not attack or kill; they just clean up what is already dead.

Why do they have bald heads? The vulture’s bald head is a brilliant adaptation that allows them to plunge into all sorts of carcasses, and come out clean. Feathers would be a habitat for all the bacteria that infests their meals. Vultures soar through their lives disease-free.

After eating, vultures can often be seen perched in the heat of the sun, and any leftover that has managed to cling to the few bits of fuzz on their head will be baked off.

Turkey vulture often directs their urine right onto their legs. On warm days, wetting the legs cools the vultures as the urine evaporates. (Vultures cannot sweat like us.). In addition, this urine contains strong acids from the vultures’ digestive system, which may kill any bacteria that remains on the birds’ legs from stepping in their meal.

Another amazing adaptation, evolved to help them survive their diet of dead and decaying flesh, is their stomach can withstand 100 times the level of botulism a human can tolerate. The stomach of a vulture can digest meat in advanced stages of decay. They clean up the environment and stomach the most revolting of cuisine, and rid or prevent the growth of maggots and disease-carrying microorganisms in the process.

Look for them gliding relatively low to the ground, sniffing for carrion, or else riding thermals up to higher vantage points. They may soar in small groups and roost in larger numbers. You may also see them on the ground in small groups, huddled around road kill or dumpsters.

Turkey vulture are gentle and non-aggressive. They roost in large community groups, breaking away to forage independently during the day. A group of vultures may be called: a “cast,” “committee,” “meal,” “vortex,” “venue” and even “wake.” A group of vultures circling in the air is called a “kettle.”

Turkey vultures nest on the ground and in caves. They do not construct nests, but scratch out indentations in the ground. Vulture nests are often found in abandoned barns and sheds.

They can raise one brood of usually two young a year. Both parents share the responsibilities of incubating and caring for the brood. Young are covered in pure white down, and have dark grey faces and grey heads instead of red. Young fledge 70-80 days after hatching. By the time turkey vultures are 1 year old their heads turns red.

Turkey vultures lack the vocal organs to sing. Most of their vocalizations come down to a form of low, guttural hiss made when they are irritated or vying for a better spot on a carcass.

Turkey vultures are among the most common large carnivorous birds in North America. Because they live on rotting meat, they can fall victim to poisons or lead in dead animals. They are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and it is illegal to kill this species in the United States.

Despite their lack of sweet song or beauty, vultures are incredible birds. They have been revered by other cultures throughout history. The Hebrews chose to compare God with a vulture, because of the birds’ being able to “float” on the air for long spans of time, without so much as flapping a wing. In ancient Egypt, one of the most famous goddesses of the early Nile was Mut, the female counterpart of the king of the gods. Her name means “mother,” and she is most commonly depicted with large wings and the head of a vulture. In Native American culture, the vulture was regarded as a very important totem animal; representing cleansing of the spirit and strength to accept difficulty.

Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.

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