Animal Misfits: The Vulture

They feed on the dead, they are not too pretty, and vomit their food if a predator approaches, but they are really mother earth's clean-up crew and serve an important purpose.

From their naked heads to their turkey-like feet, vultures have managed to confuse and confound people for centuries.

They have been called lazy, aggressive, ugly, and even creepy. Just the other day, I saw a video on cnn.com about a town in Texas that was alarmed by a nearby convergence of vultures perched on the edge of a yard on a sunny day. Locals interviewed were convinced that the vultures would attack their chickens and refused to let their pets out for fear of these “hunters”.

I chuckled to myself when I saw that news piece, because the real story of the vulture—and there are two types of vultures in our area, the turkey vulture and the black vulture—is not quite as scary as those Texans imagined.

Our first clue to the real truth behind the vulture’s mysterious behavior is found in its name. Vultures belong to the family Cathartidae, meaning “I purify.” Vultures are scavengers who feed primarily on the dead carcasses of animals, and because of that, they are mother earth’s clean-up crew.

Vulture days are spent in the sun, soaring high in the sky on air currents. From that vantage point, they can memorize the nuances of their landscape. A change in the look of the landscape will cause them to descend to investigate whether it is food.

The sight of one descending vulture sets off a homing device in other vultures flying within eyesight. This results in a cluster of scavengers, circling around a potential carcass until one of them lands and checks it out. Vultures have been called lazy because they are often seen sitting around a carcass.

This is an inaccurate characterization, because they are not waiting because they lack of energy. They are being efficient by waiting for the sun to warm up the rotting flesh of their meal so that it is easier to separate from the carcass.   

When the ‘all set’ signal is given by a pioneer vulture, a vulture party ensues. All vie for a spot around the carcass and stick their “ugly” heads inside to rip off chunks and drag them away. The odd, naked heads of the vulture are feather-free without any thought to beauty. It is more important that they do not get gunked up when plunged into a carcass.

Finding carrion is unpredictable, so when a vulture finds food it will gorge itself as much as it can. The food is stored in a crop, or storage pouch, and the vulture will sit and digest or return to a nest to feed itself and its family. If the find has been substantial, the crop can become so full that the added weight makes it difficult for the bird to fly. If a situation arises where the vulture has to flee in a hurry, such as a potential predator approaching, the vulture will expel the contents of its stomach and fly away.  

If you think that vomiting partially decomposed body parts in defense is gross, just think about what the world would be like without vultures. Rotting, smelly carcasses would remain where they landed, collecting maggots and bacteria. Insects and animals that pass by would help to spread disease from the carcass, and water sources can be polluted with the bacteria of decay.

The scariest thought is what would happen to the cycling of energy on the planet without vultures. Vultures are able to take the minerals and organic compounds from a dead animal and transfer them into usable forms. These minerals and organic compounds are eventually passed along in the bird’s droppings or vomit, or are given to another decomposer upon the vulture’s death. In consuming death, the vulture can ensure that life is continued on this planet.  

How to identify a vulture:

To identify a vulture in the sky, look for a large soaring black bird. They will often ‘wobble’ back and forth when soaring. Their wings are outstretched in a “V” shape. In contrast, most hawks and the bald eagle’s wingspans look flat when they are soaring.

Of the two types of vultures around here, the turkey vulture and the black vulture, the noticeable difference between the two is their head coloration, which has earned these species their respective names. The black vulture dons a black head, and a turkey vulture boasts a bright red head, both without feathers and with a sharp, curved beak for pulling and tearing.

ammiel schwartz January 12, 2012 at 11:02 PM
We have a lot of Vultures in Southeast partly because Grrn Chimneys has a raptor rescue program. Birds brought to them because of injury or illness are treated and rehabilitated then set free if possible. Many will consider Green Chimneys their home and will stay nearby. Vultures have among the best noses in the bird kingdom and can find carrion even if it is not visible, like under leaves, by smell. I have heard that finding a small leak in a gas pipe line in the desert was extremely difficult until someone got the bright idea to add the chemicals that give dead bodies their odor to the gas and just look for circling vultures. Those chemicals are Indoles with the revolting but accurate names of Putrescene and Cadaverine. More than you ever wantedto know. Ammiel
Brooke Beebe January 16, 2012 at 11:00 PM
Very interesting! I was just with a woman who feeds a family of black vultures on her deck with ground turkey. If she's not prompt with the food, they will look in all her windows in the house to find her!
Kristen K January 23, 2012 at 07:20 PM
Spotted one of these guys in Eastchester this weekend!
scarsdale cpa June 07, 2012 at 02:15 AM
Turkey vulture in Scarsdale today feasting on small roadkill!
Diana C June 07, 2012 at 03:19 AM
The new national bird


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