September 7th was International Vulture Awareness Day. This is a day set aside to raise awareness for vulture species that are threatened across the world. As someone who loves working with birds and observing their behavior, I’ve decided to write a 4 part blog on birds of prey. Today I will obviously be starting with mourning doves, who are the often forgotten members of the vulture family. What’s that? Doves aren’t in the vulture family? Well, let’s go with lawyers then. Man . . . I’m fighting the urge to make a bunch of cheesy lawyer/vulture jokes right now.
The first thing you should know about vultures is this
Linus is absolutely correct, I have never seen a vulture wait for prey during a snowstorm. If you ever have the urge to play dead during a snowstorm, you’ll be perfectly safe from vulture attacks, though a polar bear may mistake you for a delicious seal. Be sure to watch out for circling birds during sandstorms and volcanic eruptions. Everyone knows that vultures turn vicious during catastrophic events. While vultures are scavengers and usually feast on carrion, they have been known to eat fruit, insects and rotten pumpkins. Next time you carve a pumpkin, try leaving it in your neighbor’s yard to see if you can attract a vulture. Now vultures have been historically placed in the birds of prey family, but recent evidence has led many scientists to declare that New World vultures, including Turkey and Black Vultures, are actually more closely related to storks. Hmm . . does that mean that babies in the U.S. might be delivered by vultures?
Now for a few basic facts about vultures. Those of us who live in the U.S. are probably most familiar with the Turkey Vulture. Many people call these birds buzzards but that is incorrect as buzzards are actually species of hawks that live throughout the Old World. Turkey Vultures are unable to produce many sounds because they lack the necessary vocal organs, but they are capable of hissing. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could turn politicians into vultures? Debates would become nothing more than hissing matches. Oh wait, would that make things different? TVs, as I shall refer to them from now on, are effective gliders because they use rising currents of air called thermals. They are able to hone in on dead animals with their excellent sense of smell. Because of their super smell ability, TVs are often the first ones to arrive at a carcass, which is good because when it comes to fighting, TVs are wimps.
Due to their love of dead things, TVs are often viewed as disgusting creatures. I’m here to spread the love for TVs by noting that they are responsible for eliminating many harmful diseases. The acid in their stomachs allows them to digest toxins and bacteria that would often be lethal to other creatures. This means that vultures actually play a part in preventing diseases like anthrax from spreading to you and me! On the other hand, vultures sometimes urinate on their legs, which is kind of gross. Scientists believe that they do this to help eliminate bacteria and to provide a cooling effect. Vultures are also known to vomit but hey, no one’s perfect!
(Photos from www.worldbirdsanctuary.org. Top left – Turkey Vulture Top right – Hooded Vulture Bottom – Egyptian Vulture)
I want to conclude this post by briefly relating my personal experiences with vultures as an intern in 2010 at The World Bird Sanctuary. During my time at the sanctuary, I got to work up close with Black Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Hooded Vultures, King Vultures and Turkey Vultures. One of the things I remember most about the vultures is that they liked to try to nip my arms and hands a lot. The Hooded Vultures in particular were fond of “accidentally” biting my hand instead of the food in my glove. They were really cool birds to work with though and I remember them fondly. Several times I had the chance to help train a Hooded Vulture and enjoyed it. I also laughed at the antics of the Turkey Vultures when they were getting excited about feeding time. Sure, they may not be the prettiest birds but they have unique personalities and are fun to watch. So let’s hear it for the vultures; nature’s clean-up crew! Well, that’s all for now. My next blog post will be about hawks. Red-tailed Hawks, the Atlanta Hawks and Tony Hawk. May you soar like a vulture!