BY Cheryl Conley, TWRC Wildlife Center
One of our Facebook followers recently posted that this bird “has a face only a mother could love.” Do you know what bird she was talking about? She was referring to the vulture. Vultures have no feathers on their heads or necks and have a hooked beak so this does make them look a little odd. Whether you agree or not, one thing is for certain—this is a very valuable and underappreciated bird.
There are two types of vultures in this area, turkey vultures and black vultures. Turkey vultures have a red head and a huge wingspan of 6 feet. They fly through the air in the shape of a shallow “V” and wobble from side to side. The ends of their wings look like fingers. The black vulture’s wingspan is almost a foot shorter and the tips of the wings are white. It’s been said that the black vulture looks like he has tube socks on because of his white legs.
Vultures are scavengers and play a vital role in keeping our environment clean and balanced. Turkey vultures eat almost exclusively carrion (dead and rotting flesh of an animal) and use their sense of smell to find it. They are able to smell carrion from a mile away! Black vultures eat carrion, too, but they find it through sight or follow turkey vultures to the feast. Black vultures can also be found dining at garbage dumps or open trash bins. Vultures are only able to eat such things and not get sick or die because they have excellent immune systems and a highly corrosive stomach acid. If carcasses were left for other animals to eat, the spread of diseases like rabies, botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella to both animals and humans would be much higher. Vultures typically feed in large groups and it’s not uncommon to find both turkey vultures and black vultures eating side by side at the site of a recently deceased animal. It’s not a peaceful meal, however, and squabbling is normal.
Strange but true, vultures urinate or defecate on their legs and feet to cool off on hot days. Yuk! This process is called urohidrosis. It also helps kill any bacteria or parasites from walking through carcasses or perching on dead animals.
Another strange but true fact is that when startled or disturbed, a vulture will vomit and can project it up to 10 feet and it’s putrid-smelling. This is a great predator deterent. Wouldn’t want to be the recipient of that!
If you ever see vultures on the side of the road, you’ll notice some of them have their wings spread. This is called the “horaltic” pose. The horaltic pose is believed to serve multiple functions: it dries the body and bakes off bacteria when it’s hot. If you see this stance in the morning, it’s because a vulture’s body temperature drops overnight, and this pose will help them warm up.
Appreciate nature’s garbage men! They’re crucial to our environment! Just think how smelly our world would be without them.
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