What better time than the month of Halloween to introduce you to the Vulture, commonly referred to as a buzzard. Some people consider vultures creepy, scary, ugly and even icky, but what they may lack in good looks they make up for in personality and a purposeful life. There are 23 species of vultures found worldwide (except Australia and Antarctica), but our resident girls at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC (Xena & Zelda) represent the only two vulture species found in North Carolina. Xena, the red faced, brown feathered bird with whitish flight feathers underneath is a Turkey Vulture, and Zelda, the Black Vulture, has black plumage with a gray neck and head. Some folks say the Black Vulture has the “prettier face,” but don’t tell Xena that! Both girls were admitted to the shelter years ago with car graze injuries that when healed, rendered them non-releasable. They have been part of our shelter’s education program, best friends and enclosure-mates ever since. Vultures are extremely gregarious, social and practice the concept of family. You will often see large community groups of vultures roosting together in trees and unfortunately, sometimes on rooftops. Groups of vultures are referred to as a committee, vortex, venue and even a wake. A circling of vultures in the air is called a kettle which relates to the appearance of something boiling in a cauldron. Vultures are considered raptors, but rather than taking down prey like an eagle or a hawk does, their prey is already down. Vultures in general feed on dead animals. They are scavengers of roadkill and animals who have expired by other means as well. If dead animals or carrion is scarce, they will eat eggs or kill newborn animals. In defense of the Turkey Vulture, it’s usually the more aggressive Black Vulture that may attack living prey. If protein sources are hard to find, they both will eat almost anything; pumpkins, grass and seeds. In areas populated by humans, garbage dumps become stomping grounds for vultures. In the wild, vultures find meals either by using their keen eyesight or by following other vultures. Most birds’ olfactory senses are minimal to none, but a vulture’s sense of smell is elevated which helps them locate their meals, even in the density of a forest. They are referred to as “tearers,” which is what the word vulture means in Latin. They use their hooked, long beak as a ripping tool when dining on dead carcasses. Both Turkey and Black Vultures have bald heads to prevent getting their feathers contaminated from carrion. Vultures occasionally consume too much of a good thing, ultimately gorging themselves. At that point, they can’t fly and will have to wait out digestion to get off the ground again. Although they are raptors, their feet are quite different than birds that rely on powerful talons to capture prey. A vulture’s feet are more adapted to walking, running and hopping and look more like chickens’ feet. The vulture’s anatomy lacks a syrinx, which is the vocal organ in birds, so the only vocalizations they share and we can hear are grunts or hisses. Vultures must chuckle a bit when they are mistaken for the majestic eagle or the considered more beautiful osprey, as they soar high in the sky with their 6 foot wingspan. An avian sports contender, the vulture can glide for hours without flapping a wing, which attests to its remarkable endurance. Vultures enjoy sunny days over gray days because they need warmed air with sufficient thermals to support soaring. It’s actually easy to tell vultures from other birds in the sky if you know what to look for. A vulture’s wings form the shape of a “V” in flight, and they tilt from side to side as they soar, unlike eagles and hawks. In our coastal region, we see vultures year round. They are permanent residents, mostly non-migratory. Most vultures mate for life after winning their significant other with impressive courtship dance moves. During breeding season, trees are not their choice for nesting. Their eggs are laid on the ground and hidden under cover, in rock crevices, in hollow trees or logs, or sometimes in hillside depressions or caves. The eggs are whitish with lots of dark brown markings and both parents incubate the eggs from 38 to 41 days. Vultures generally raise two chicks each year and feed their young by regurgitation. Like most species, young birds look different than the adult birds, although baby vultures are unfortunately, still homely. Young vultures have a gray head, bill and legs. They get their adult coloration and plumage when they are 1-2 years old. One might wonder how vultures don’t get sick feeding on dead and rotting food choices. The answer is; they have a digestive system that contains special acids that can dissolve some pretty bad stuff such as anthrax, botulism, salmonella and cholera bacteria. Medical researchers continue to look at the vulture’s innate protection system in attempts to find an effective treatment for humans suffering with serious and deadly afflictions. In the spirit of the “spooky” holiday this month, the vulture tops the “Icky-Factor” list. Yes, they eat dead and spoiled things, but they also use projectile vomiting as a defense mechanism. So be careful if you wonder into a vulture roosting area. You will be perceived as a disturbance and some of the icky stuff could be heading your way very quickly and accurately in attempts to scare you off! Another icky-factor includes the knowledge that they cool themselves by urinating or defecating on their own legs. Quite the air-conditioning system! Just a few more reasons why people don’t want them too close to their house, but in the United States, the vulture receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It is illegal to take, kill, or possess vultures and violation of the law is punishable by a fine of up to $15,000 and imprisonment of up to six months. So despite all the ickiness, how about a little respect for these dutiful birds who fulfill their inherent role in nature to cleanse disease from our environment, which helps other animals and people from getting sick. And who knows, these prehistoric creatures may just have the answer and cure for medical conditions the human race has been struggling with since the beginning of time.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE!!
author of “Save Them All”