Take a Vulture Under your Wing

Posted by Science Explored on October 04, 2013

When you think of vultures, what comes to mind?  The most common images might be of Halloween, haunted houses, or a group of birds flying in circles above something dead.  In truth, however, vultures may be one of the world’s most misunderstood animal species.

Vultures inhabit each continent except Australia and Antarctica.  They are very adaptable and can be  found in a variety of habitats, including the suburbs! There are over 20 different species of vultures, 14 of which are endangered meaning they are threatened with extinction. 

Vultures are raptors, or meat-eating birds that hunt and kill other animals for food. Their prey includes small birds, fish, mammals, lizards and insects. They have strong talons, sharply hooked bills, and powerful wings. Their diet consists mainly of carrion, which is a term to describe the dead or decaying flesh of other animals.  Vultures’ stomachs produce an acid that helps them digest this carrion, which would sicken other animals.

In addition to eating decaying meat, vultures regurgitate their rotten meals knowing the smell alone will thwart predators’ attacks.  This defense mechanism also makes the vulture physically lighter for a hasty flyaway.  And whereas other animals sweat to cool themselves off in hot weather, vultures urinate on their own legs. 

There are, however, plenty of good things to say about vultures.  Unlike many raptors, vultures are very social and often are found in flocks eating, flying or roosting. Vultures also have excellent senses of sight and smell that assist in locating food.  While they are not the most attractive birds, with their bald heads and necks, there is a good reason for this: when vultures feed on rotting carcasses, having no feathers on their heads or necks prevents bacteria and other parasites from burrowing down and causing infections.  This adaptation keeps vultures healthier while feeding on material that would easily infect or kill other animals.

The most important characteristic about vultures is the role they play in a community. Because of their diet of carrion, environments are cleaned up and saved from the threat of disease.. This makes vultures the ultimate recyclers and sanitation saviors of an ecosystem, instead of the deathly omens they are often thought to be.  There are myths about vultures attacking healthy livestock, prompting farmers to poison them.

With their keen senses of sight and smell, scientists and public safety officials are testing if vultures can help search for missing people or bodies.  So don’t be surprised if the next new Law & Order series is SVU – Special Vultures Unit!  Vultures have their own holiday, International Vulture Awareness Day, which is celebrated on the first Saturday of September. Not every species is honored with its own holiday, which sets vultures apart and signifies the good they can do.

Would you like to help spread the word about how incredible and important vultures are? One way to help is by entering the Vulture Poetry Contest sponsored by Dr. Corinne Kendall.  The rules of the contest, as well as past contest entries, can be viewed at Vultures Rock!. You can help raise awareness about vultures by taking some time to write about them, and we hope you will!