Poor, Misunderstood Vulture Continues Image Rehabilitation at VINS

Submitted 4 months ago
Created by
Tom Haushalter

Popular culture has been unkind to the vulture. Everyone knows this. Most haven't given a second thought to how books, film, and other forms of expression have influenced our view of this most unsavory of birds of prey.

Not altogether in spite of their reputation as the bottom feeders of the animal kingdom, though, vultures actually do us a world of good when they match our expectations and go to town on whatever small creature found its misfortune by the roadside.

To help us deepen our appreciation of vultures' benefits to nature and humanity, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS) in Quechee is celebrating International Vulture Awareness Day this Saturday, September 1.

As preparation for that occasion—and a chance to see some vultures up close—I asked VINS Lead Wildlife Keeper, Lauren Adams, to shed some light and overdue love on a bird that doesn't really care what it eats.

A lot of us think of vultures, unfairly, as birds that just feast on roadkill. But what are some cool things most people DON’T know about vultures?

Lauren Adams: Turkey vultures are one of the only birds with a highly developed sense of smell, which allows them to locate food from up to miles away. Dead animals smell strongly!

And they have adaptations to keep clean after feeding on a carcass, such as a bald head that keeps bits of meat and goop from getting stuck in their feathers, and an open structure above their nares (nostrils) that allows them to easily clear their nares by shaking their head or using a talon.

Also, vultures soar using thermals, which are columns of hot air in the atmosphere. They can sense the presence of these columns, and catch the upwardly moving air (because hot air rises), by stretching out their wings. This way they can rise in the air column without expending extra energy flapping! This is usually what people are seeing when they see soaring vultures.

Wow! So how are vultures ecologically important? What’s their big contribution to the web of wildlife?

Lauren: They are so important! Turkey vultures, as scavengers that feast on carrion, are the clean-up crew of their ecosystems. They have digestive systems that kill many types of diseases that would affect mammals, other birds, or even humans. This means that if a mammal dies of rabies, botulism, or even anthrax, a Turkey vulture (or other vulture) can eat this carcass and not get sick, stopping the spread of this disease in the wild.

There is an important example of this in India when their vulture population got critically low. They saw a significant increase in incidences of rabies in humans.  

Anything we can do to make life better or easier for vulture populations?

Lauren: Turkey vultures are vulnerable to the threats that most wild birds experience, such as habitat loss due to human development. We are also seeing their ranges expand northwards (both with Turkey vultures and Black vultures in North America) with climate change. Any conservation efforts that preserve habitats and reduce emissions help Turkey vultures!

Learn more about these important creatures on September 1st at VINS!


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