Did you know that the first Saturday in the month of September is celebrated around the world as International Vulture Awareness Day? Did you celebrate this holiday?
If you are like me, you probably never heard of this holiday! But new things are learned everyday, especially with the internet and the ease of getting information about anything and everything. When I was doing research for this post I came across reference to this and looked into it. Too bad I didn’t discover it a few weeks earlier– could have helped the world in its celebration.
So it is true that some people don’t have a very favorable opinion of vultures. Yes, they are a bit less attractive than other birds, with their bald heads. And yes, they do have some pretty gross habits, as we’ll discuss later, but they are very important in our ecosystems, alerting other animals to the presence of dead animals and recycling nutrients back into the environment. Not to mention their ability to sterilize contaminated meat with their strong stomach acids. Imagining a world without vultures is not very pleasant. (Think LOTS of dead and smelly animals, everywhere, rotting, and generally making the world a less pleasant place.) Many animals–EVERYDAY–die from diseases, starvation, parasites, fights over mates, competition, and accidents. Vultures find and eat these animals.
Let’s look at some facts that make these animals unique.
1. Worldwide there are 23 species of vultures, 14 of which are endangered or threatened. The turkey vulture, (Cathartes aura) is the most common vulture in North America and can be found throughout the lower 48 and into southern Canada.
2.Turkey vultures, and other vultures, feed on carrion–dead animals. This may seem gross, but they play a vital role in the ecosystems and are essential to the health of the planet. This is why vultures lack feathers on their heads and necks–imagine the mess drying blood on feathers would be!
3. Turkey vultures are oddities in the bird world in that they have a very well-developed sense of smell. Most other birds do not smell well at all (making it a myth that a bird will abandon its nest if you touch its egg or chick) Old world vultures–those found in Africa and Asia–like hawks and eagles, do not have a sense of smell! New world vultures–like turkey, black, Andean and California condor DO have a developed sense of smell. These vultures find their food–carrion, or dead animals–by smell and sight; they can find carrion over a mile away! Not all vultures have this great sense of smell, including NA’s other vulture–the black vulture.
4. When a turkey, and other vulture, feels threatened, for instance, at its nest or at a carcass, they can launch their vomit containing powerful stomach acids up to 10 feet away! Wow, talk about an undiscovered talent! Need a smelly shower anyone?
5. Vomiting on potential predators isn’t their only gross habit; they also defecate on their legs and feet when they are feeling hot. This habit cools their blood vessels and kills harmful bacteria and parasites that might otherwise make them sick. Don’t try this at home!
6. Turkey vultures (and other vultures) do not build nests. Instead, they lay their eggs on bare ground–perhaps on the edge of a cliff, in a crevice, under a dead tree, in an abandoned building, etc. Females lay 1-3 creamy white eggs that have dark blotches on the fatter end. Eggs hatch in 30-40 days.t
7. Vultures congregate in large flocks to feed, fly and often roost. A large group of vultures is called a committee, a venue or a volt. When they get together in the air, using thermals to effortlessly drift in the sky above, it is called a kettle, which is a large flock. Sometimes eagles or other birds will be found among them.
8. Have you ever seen a movie where a character is out in the desert, hot and lost and looked up to see circling vultures, worried he was going to be eaten by them? This is a myth! Vultures do not circle and follow dying animals.
9. Most birds have an organ called a syrinx. This is the vocal organ that allows birds to sing. Turkey vultures do not have one of these so the only sounds they make are grunts, hisses and clacks.
10. Male and female turkey vultures look the same. They are the same size and have no identifying traits that would signal their sex. Gender
cannot be determined without a medical procedure.
11. (Yes, I know I said 10, but one more won’t hurt!) In many parts of the world vultures are threatened or endangered. Many die from electrocution, car collisions and from toxins or lead in the carcasses they eat. In many European countries, vultures are in trouble, dying from a drug called diclofenac, which is used by some farmers as an anti-inflammatory in cattle and pigs. Vultures who feed on these animals die within a few hours of ingesting this drug. Amazingly, other drugs that accomplish the same goal are available and word is out on this deadly result, but still the drug is being used. Want to read more about this? Read more from BirdLife.org, the Royal Society of Chemistry, or Nature.com or the Guardian.com
So wow, did you learn anything new? I am always amazed when I do these creature features because it is inevitable that I will learn many new things. I have always enjoyed watching turkey vultures soaring in the blue sky above me, envious of their ability to fly so effortlessly. Next time you see one, perhaps you too can stop for a minute to admire this amazing bird.
Turkey Vulture Society: This is a fabulous site offering lots of wonderful information about vultures. If you go, check out the frequently asked questions.