“In Defense of the Turkey Vulture”

Let me just say that I think all animals are beautiful.  I’m not trying to get on my soapbox to start preaching, but I think there are many degrees of beauty and I think we get caught up in the cute and cuddly, but don’t share any love for some other critters that may appear to be “ugly” but when looked at a little closer, are beautiful.

One critter that gets its load of insults and disparaging comments is the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura).  Many of the comments are about what they eat, how they are nasty birds, etc., but the number one comment on the vulture is how ugly they are with the bald head and wrinkly, red skin.  Well, when I hear someone say that, I immediately get defensive on behalf of the bird, but usually I respond back with the good ‘ol southern statement of “he can’t help it, bless his heart”.  Let’s face it, on the surface, the turkey vulture may appear to be ugly, but they “have a great personality” and there’s more to them that meets the eye.

The turkey vulture is actually an intelligent, comical, and, yes, I’ll say it, a beautiful bird.  With broad, black and white wings, and the ability to soar effortlessly for hours, this graceful “gut-eater” has prompted many of us to enviously watch them soar and wish we could do the same.  But it’s their station in life that adds to their scorn, but this niche is so very important.  This bird, along with the black vulture, plays a big role in our ecosystem by consuming carrion (dead and decaying animals).  They perform this valuable service and often bump “elbows” with some very famous celebrities, such as the bald eagle.  That’s right, the vultures and the bald eagle will be up to their, um, necks in dinner, shoulder to shoulder with our national symbol.

At one time, vultures were considered to be in the same family as the birds of prey, but actually, genetic research has shown that these carrion eaters are more closely related to storks.  Upon closer inspection, one can see that there is some similarity.  The naked head is one of the most obvious, but also the spreading of their wings while perched, they migrate, etc.   One feature (I know many of you will think it is disgusting) that they share with the stork is urohydrosis.  This, plainly put, is the ability to direct urine onto their legs to cool their legs down by evaporation.  I’m sure that fact alone will cause many of you to “pile on” the “disgusting” and “eewww, gross” bandwagon, but it’s not like they vomit as a defense mechanism.  Oh, wait!  Actually, they do!  They will vomit when threatened by predators and it is theorized that they do this because they want to lighten their load to fly away and also to offer tantalizing tidbits that will distract a predator.  And you thought they were ugly AND disgusting…

On the more appealing and brighter side, turkey vultures are known for their amazing sense of smell.  If you don’t believe me, check out the size of their nostrils in the photo.  This allows them the ability to detect their dead dinner from miles away.  The black vulture, however, doesn’t have as good of a sense of smell, but has keener eyesight.  He uses this eyesight to spot turkey vultures homing in on a carcass, where he and his buddies will aggressively chase away the turkey vultures to feed, and then, after they are done, the turkey vulture will resume eating.  Not very nice or fair, huh?

I’ve probably done more harm than good with the fun (ew!) facts and defense of the turkey vulture.  I’m a firm believer that the red head and striking black and white plumage of the turkey vulture is gorgeous and, don’t forget, bald is beautiful.  I just think too many people judge them just because of what they eat and just can’t get past that. If you dig deep and think about it, you may just find yourself seeing the beauty in these birds, or maybe you won’t.  Just remember not to judge the vulture too quick. They last time I checked, most of the stuff we eat is dead, too!

by Marvin Bouknight
Nature Nook , LLC

 

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