For Love of Nature: Vultures important scavengers in nature

For Love of Nature: Vultures important scavengers in nature

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Earlier this winter, the carcass of a black vulture lay in the middle of the road for nearly two weeks before a snowplow finally scooped it away.

This prompted Michael to ask why vultures don’t clean up a fellow member of their tribe. While I found conflicting information on that question, it appears vultures prefer not to be cannibalistic.

Vultures are among our most obvious and common birds in winter. It’s easy to see vultures circling barren deciduous trees and giant power line towers as they prepare to roost at night. During the day, they roam the sky, looking for carrion.

We have two types of vultures, black and turkey. The turkey vulture is one of the largest birds in our area, with a nearly six-foot wingspan, and can be mistaken for an eagle or hawk. While soaring, vultures are impressive and elegant, rarely flapping their wings while covering great distances as they search for their next meal.

Turkey vultures, with red heads, are larger and hold their wings in a distinct, shallow "v" shape in flight while rocking gently. Black vultures have a short, square tail, white patches on the underwings, whitish-grey legs and feet and a grey head. In flight, their wings are held nearly horizontally.

Up close, both vultures have a face that only a mother could love. Their bare heads are functional, keeping them clean while they are busy tearing away at flesh.

I appreciate the work vultures do to clean up decaying carcasses that might otherwise spread disease. They are too often tasked with eating roadkill. Because they are such large birds, it takes a lot of energy for them to get off the ground, and unfortunately, motorists sometimes hit them, adding another creature to the roadkill count.

Turkey and black vultures share the same culinary tastes. Turkey vultures, however, have a superior sense of smell and often lead the way for their black vulture kin. The two species don’t seem to mind sharing a meal of rotting meat.

Recent studies have shown that disease organisms in carrion do not survive passage through a vulture's digestive system, and vultures are immune to botulism.

Vultures, however, can get ill or die from carrion, especially if it is filled with lead shot. I once came home to find a turkey vulture on my front porch, retching up a meal. By morning, I was glad to see that the bird had apparently recovered and disappeared.

There’s no question that vultures can become a nuisance to humans. A few years ago I interviewed a family that had vultures roosting on their roof. You can imagine the mess, not only on the house, but their nearby automobiles. Ironically, if we killed fewer animals while driving, there would be fewer vultures living in the Burg.

These large birds have other unsavory traits. In summer, they urinate and defecate on their legs and feet to cool down and to kill the parasites they have waded through. Maybe that’s another reason they avoid eating each other.

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