Saturday, April 10, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: Turkey Vulture Tales

The mere mention of the word “vulture” often conjures up images of Halloween, death, or the African plains. I, however, find vultures to be endlessly fascinating creatures. Mostly I’ve seen them from afar, as they glide overhead in a wobbly “V” while soaring on a thermal, but I’ve also been lucky enough to see them roosting in trees along rivers where I’ve paddled, and once I even came upon a family unit on a rocky prominence overlooking Bridgewater, New Jersey – we were only about six feet way from each other.

Turkey vultures are probably the most common of the New World vultures, living in open and semi-open areas from southern Canada all the way to the southernmost tip of South America. Here in North American they tend to be commonly called “buzzards,” but I’m a purist and prefer to stick to the word “vulture.” In the world of science, they are called Cathartes aura. Cathartes is Latin for “purifier,” and probably refers to the bird’s habit of eating dead things – they are the sanitary engineers of the natural world. In fact, while most people no doubt find the vulture’s habit of eating carrion revolting, we should all be grateful that they do, for they help keep the incidence of disease at a minimum.

A close look at the turkey vulture shows us just how well it is adapted to its role as nature’s clean-up crew. First, it has a phenomenal sense of smell. This is rare among birds in general, and even among vultures it is a trait that stands out. Turkey vultures fly low over open areas scanning the ground with their keen eyes and sense of smell. The early stages of decay are marked with the emission of particular gasses, and the vulture’s highly developed olfactory system can detect even the smallest trace. Black vultures, which do not have the ability to smell, keep their eyes on their red-headed cousins to learn where the nearest food is located.

Next we should take note of that red head, which on the juveniles is grey. Some native stories say that the vulture’s head is featherless and red because it flew up to the sun to bring light back to earth, and its head was burned in the process. In reality, a naked head is a trait of most carrion birds. When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. Y’see, these birds stick their heads into rotting, decaying flesh, ripping off bits to feed themselves or their off-spring. Rotting animals are full of “unsavory” things, like maggots and bacteria. By having featherless heads, vultures are able to keep themselves cleaner and avoid contamination. This could also be why their feet and legs are featherless, too.

Sometimes turkey vultures are seen standing with their wings spread out in the sunlight, much like anhingas. This is something they tend to do in the morning, especially after a damp night. I read that at night turkey vultures drop their body temperatures by about 11 degrees Fahrenheit, making themselves slightly hypothermic. I don’t know why they do this, but perhaps this is one reason why they “sun” themselves in the morning – to warm up. But they also do it to dry off and to bake off any bacteria that might be lingering in their feathers. When you think about it, these are really very tidy birds.

Okay, maybe not all their habits are tidy, like when they defecate on their feet and legs, a trait they share with their stork relatives. But, in all fairness, they do this to cool down. It’s an evaporation thing. The liquid evaporates from the skin, which cools off the blood that runs close to the surface of their legs and feet. Not everything can sweat like you and I.

And the projectile vomiting thing is rather revolting, too, I guess. But again, they do this only when necessary. Even though turkey vultures are fairly large animals, and therefore have few “enemies,” there are some animals that may try to take on a vulture or attack its nest of young. Because they don’t have strong feet with sharp talons, or fearsome beaks for killing prey, turkey vultures don’t have a lot of options for fending off attackers – beating them about the head and shoulders with their vast wings will only go so far. Vomiting up partially digested, rotting flesh, however, serves as a pretty good deterrent. The foul mess is even reported to sting when it lands on the offender. I know that if a large bird barfed all over me I’d be likely to leave it alone; apparently it works on raccoons and eagles, too.

It’s always good to take a second look at animals that we usually look at with a jaundiced eye. Just because something isn’t cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy, doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Beauty can be found in many forms, and while on the surface the turkey vulture may not win any beauty contests, it is, in my humble opinion, one of our more beautiful birds. I’d rather see a flock of vultures roosting in a tree over a flock of robins pulling worms out of my yard any day. This morning I heard my first report of vultures in the area for 2010. I’ll be looking skyward on my way home tonight to catch a glimpse of their silver-lined wings rocking gently overhead.

Photo: Turkey Vulture in flight over Florida (Wiki Commons).

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Ellen Rathbone

Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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