Day 38 of 100 Days of Blogging

Vultures have kind of a negative public image, what with eating decaying meat and those bald heads can be kind of creepy looking. However, any negative image is highly undeserved since they play a vital role in the ecosystem. Hopefully, after reading this, the next time you see a vulture flying overhead you won’t be sorry it’s not a hawk and perhaps say ‘look, a vulture!’ and not, ‘’s just a vulture.’ 

10 Things to know about Vultures

#1. The New World Vulture family Cathartidae contains 7 species of vultures, three of which occur in North America: The Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture and the California Condor. The name “vulture” is derived from the Latin word vulturus, meaning “tearer,” and is a reference to its feeding habits.

#2. The California Condor is the largest North American land bird and extremely rare. It suffered severe population declines for a number of reasons, some in part due to relentless hunting by ranchers who wrongly believed Condors were responsible for killing their livestock.  In an attempt to save the population, the 22 remaining wild Condors were captured in 1987 for inclusion in a captive breeding program.The release of captive bred birds into the wild started during the 1990’s, and continues to date. More information about the California condor can be found on the US Fish and Wildlife Service website.

#3. The Turkey and Black Vulture are the two species found in our area, but the Black Vulture only occurs irregularly. The range of the Turkey Vulture is widespread throughout North America. It is found across  most of southern Canada and the US during the summer. It is a year round resident of the southern and southeastern part of the US. Northern populations move to the southern states and New England for the winter. The Black Vulture is found in the southeastern US and in the northeastern states to New York and Connecticut. It also occurs in southern Arizona, most of Mexico and southward to the Tropics. 

#4. While vultures have a somewhat creepy image and a reputation for being unclean and carrying disease, the truth is quite to the contrary. They perform a vital job in the ecosystem by destroying toxins that would be lethal to other scavengers. Their highly corrosive stomach acid make light work of digesting decomposing carcasses that might be infected with anthrax, cholera, botulism or rabies.

It pays to have a bald head! You can stick your head in a carcass and avoid all that mess in your feathers! (Photo Connie Morgenstern)

It pays to have a bald head! You can stick your head in a carcass and avoid all that mess in your feathers! (Photo Connie Morgenstern)

#5. Vultures have bald heads so that they can put their heads inside the carrion they are feeding on and avoid having all the bacteria in their feathers. The Turkey Vulture received its common name from the resemblance of the adult’s bald red head and its dark plumage to that of the male wild turkey. 

#6. Vultures do not have a syrinx (the lower larynx, which in birds serves as the vocal organ) and so the only vocalizations it can make are grunts or low hisses

#7. What it lacks in vocal abilities, The Turkey Vulture makes up for with a highly developed sense of smell. It is adept at sniffing out the odours of decaying flesh as it flies low enough to detect the gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by the beginnings of  the decay process in dead animals.

#8.The Black Vulture, on the other hand, does not share this ability and must rely on eyesight. However, it also tends to follow around the larger Turkey Vulture, waiting for it to sniff out some food, then swoops in to try and take it away.

#9. New World Vultures use a process called urohidrosis to cool themselves. By defecating on their own legs, the evaporation of the water in their feces and/or urine cools the bird. As a result, the legs are streaked white from contact with the uric acid.

#10. Vultures spend their day riding thermals, scanning the ground for carrion. They feed on a wide variety dead animals, from small mammals to large grazers. They have a preference for recently dead carcasses and and avoid those that have reached the point of putrefaction. (Seems like a good choice to me!)