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The beneficial buzzard: Clearing the air about vultures

I am a vulture lover, all the way down to my bones. But let’s face it, vultures get a bad rap. I sometimes forget that most people do not share my respect of these birds. In fact, most people really dislike, and more importantly, they tend to misunderstand these amazing animals. I am convinced though, that once you learn a little more about these truly unique, interesting and amazing birds, your opinion of these “Ghastly Gourmets” will change forever!

Fun Fact: Buzzard is a slang term for vulture. In Europe, buzzard refers to a common hawk.

Part of the reason that people find vultures disgusting, is that habit they have of eating dead stuff. Well, we eat dead stuff too, don’t we? I never heard my hamburger say “Mooo” before I bit into it, so we can overcome that particular prejudice immediately.

The other reason we cringe when we see these birds is that they often eat roadkill, and that’s something that’s harder for us to relate to. Here’s an infallible secret about Nature… the Law of Least Effort. That’s right, the less energy you spend to find your food in the wild, the more chance you have of survival. And face it, our hundreds of thousands of miles of roadway that wiggle across the map, are definitely the easiest “fast food” buffet an animal can find… it is irresistible. We offer it, they just try to use it to their benefit.

Here are a few facts about vultures that may help clear the air:

Though there are more than 20 species of vultures worldwide (Old World and New World), there are only three types of vultures that live in the United States (New World) – and two of them find homes in the Southeastern U.S.

Our native vultures are in the same family with birds of prey, although they do not have the gripping talons like raptors do, they have large flat feet, more like a turkey. Therefore, they do not kill their own food, they prefer to find it already killed. Contrary to popular belief, vultures cannot catch small animals with their feet… I’ve often heard people say that vultures will scoop up a family pet and fly away with it. For the record: they will not capture and kill small dogs or kittens or anything else for that matter!

California Condors are New World vultures that live in the Western U.S. These are the largest flighted birds in the Country and are on the endangered species list – they remain on the brink of extinction. Habitat loss, malicious shootings, environmental contaminants and toxicities from lead shot and other human related issues play a huge part in the rapid decline of these birds. Learn more about the plight to save the California Condor here: Defenders of Wildlife

Vultures of the Southeastern U.S.

Turkey Vultures are large, dark brown birds with a wingspan often exceeding 5ft – the adults have a red head. When they’re flying above or sunbathing with wings outstretched, you will notice a silver trailing edge on the underside of their wings.

Fun Fact: The scientific name for Turkey Vulture is Cathartes Aura – which means Golden Purifier.

Black Vultures are also large birds, with nearly a 5ft wingspan - though smaller bodied than their Turkey Vulture cousins. They are solid black birds and if you are looking up at them from below, you would notice a very slight silver coloring on the underside of their primary flight feathers (“finger” feathers).

Vultures are one of Nature’s best defenses against disease!

One of the main misconceptions about vultures is that they spread disease. This is absolutely untrue. In fact, the opposite is true… vultures actually prevent viruses, bacteria and other pathogens from spreading in the environment. A vulture’s stomach acid is a unique compound that not only allows the bird to ingest disease processes, but also removes said disease from the environment. Once a virus, bacterium or other type of disease goes into the vulture, it never comes back out! Vultures help stop the spread of rabies, anthrax, cholera, brucellosis and many other pathogens that could otherwise harm other wildlife and even humans!

Another way vultures prevent the spread of disease is with their body design. Both types of these birds have beautiful bald heads, no ornate plumage for bacteria to hold onto. These birds are perfectly designed to stick their smooth heads into rotting carcasses and root around to find the most tasty bits! Solar energy from the sun will actually bake their heads clean after a meal. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes spot these birds taking a sun bath – scientifically called a “heraldic pose” – it’s a magnificent display where the bird sits with wings spread wide apart so the sun’s UV rays clean them.

Fun Fact: Vulture’s nostrils are hollow all the way thru their beak, so one good snort and any clogs are dislodged.

Vultures also have smooth legs, which they urinate down throughout the day (this is why the legs appear white, although underneath this protective layer, they are actually as dark as the rest of the bird). The urine is so acidic that it kills any harmful bacteria or viral processes that may be left over after standing on a rotting carcass. This strange urination habit also helps to cool the big dark birds in the heat of the summer through evaporation.

“Workin’ with what ya got” – protection from predators:

Every animal on our beautiful planet has ways and means of protection. Vultures are no exception to this rule and they have a very unique system of protecting themselves from their predators… they vomit on them! Nature is full of interesting defense mechanisms and is a big fan of “workin’ with what ya got”!

Think about this… vultures spend a lot of time on the ground, that’s where the dead things are. They are large, heavy birds… and are even heavier after gorging on a nice, warm, rotting lunch. A bird on the ground is a sitting duck, so to speak, for other predatory animals. Flying away to safety is of course an option; however, vultures who are heavy and full of dinner are much slower to get up and out of danger’s way.

Vultures have a brilliant habit of offering their freshly consumed lunch to the dangerous predator… when they regurgitate the partially digested meal, this supplies the advancing predator with something else to think about while they fly away to safety! If the bird is already back at its roost, and the meal has had time to digest more, the regurgitated goop is acidic enough to actually burn and sting the predator’s face, also allowing ample time for the vulture to move to a safer area.

Vultures are not smelly, but they have a grand sense of smell!

It may surprise you to learn that vultures are very clean animals, their urine is sterile, their feathers are routinely given a sun bath and they groom and preen more incessantly than most humans do!

Here’s another shocker - most birds lack a defined sense of smell, very many birds have absolutely no sense of smell to speak of. Vultures are the exception to this rule. Turkey vultures have a very well developed sense of smell… the most precise sense of smell in the bird world, in fact.

Fun Fact: If you’ve ever heard that you shouldn’t put a baby bird back in it’s nest because the mother bird will smell you and abandon the young, this is untrue! Birds are very visual and the mother bird can see you hanging out around her nest. Put the baby bird back, then walk away so the mother will feel safe enough to return.

Meat eating birds are very visual creatures, they are “tuned in” to the quick movements that their prey would make while foraging for food. They’re also trying to catch animals that are very well camouflaged in their environment, so keen eyesight is invaluable to birds of prey.

Fun Fact: Birds see faster than we do, they see in more colors than we do and they can absolutely see much further away than we can.

Just like other birds, vultures claim wonderful eyesight. But, unlike most animals, vultures are looking for food that doesn’t move. Dead things do tend to have an intense odor about them, though, so it makes grand sense that vultures can smell something as small as a dead lizard up to a mile away!

Other interesting facts:

Vultures fly in a dihedral. Unlike bald eagles that fly with their wings straight across, vultures have a “V” shape when they are in flight. This is a nice way to help identify these birds when they’re high overhead. Just remember V for vulture!

Both groups of vultures are social animals. They live in large family groups and have a definite hierarchy – a rank structure of sorts. They communicate with each other both for survival and for play. A lot like we find within our own family units, the “grandparents” tend to hold a higher ranking within their group; the younger, less experienced members of the family hold a lower position on the totem pole, and quite literally a lower position on their roost!

Vultures can live to more than 30 years of age and they form pair bonds for life. They nest on the ground, thus habitat destruction is an intense problem that vultures around the world routinely face.

Vultures go wind surfing! They utilize the warm thermal air currents that rise off of the surface of the Earth. They are a lot like avid surfers, sitting and waiting for that perfect wave that they can get the best ride from. Some vultures have been known to stay airborne, riding thermals, for more than six hours … without having to flap their wings! These birds are true masters of the sky, and are often observed simply play​ing in the wind currents.

Although vultures are grouped with birds of prey, they are actually more closely (biologically) related to the stork! Which is very interesting considering that popular folklore tells us that storks are the bringers of life - they carry newborn babies to their new homes. Whereas vultures carry old souls who have died up to the heavens!

Fun Fact: The Cherokee name for vulture means Peace Eagle – because unlike most meat eaters, vultures do not kill for food.

Another lovely sentiment surrounding these misunderstood birds is their place in history and legend. Native cultures revered these birds because they assumed them, quite literally, to deliver souls to heaven. In fact, many tribal people would consider themselves blessed to come across a roosting family of vultures and would wear their feathers as a sign of peace, agility and long life!

Vultures have recently shown us a valuable lesson in how all things are connected, and that by removing one animal from an ecosystem, we do harm to the entirety of the rest of that system. In India and Nepal, vultures have nearly gone extinct in the last decade due to toxicities from the drug diclofenac (used in the cattle and the humans that the vultures eat). The declining vulture population has led to a dramatic increase in the spread of the fatal rabies virus to humans. You can learn more about this catastrophic issue HERE.

Just remember when you see something in Nature, it is exactly designed to do the thing that it does. Even something as ghastly as a scavenger bird has it’s place, it’s function, it’s job. And no matter how gross you think an animal is, if you’ll just look a little closer, I can guarantee that you’ll find that there is a unique beauty that belongs to every single living creature!

*This article originally published through Atlanta Outdoors Examiner. Click here for original version.

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