Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Rookie Files: Vader Vulture

When I first started as an intern at World Bird Sanctuary in 2008 I imagined I would enjoy all of the birds that I was going to be working with.  What I never expected is that over time all the birds would grow on me, even the seemingly disgusting ones.  I am of course referring to nature’s recycler: the vulture.

Gator, a Black Vulture who was with us for many years.

It did not take me long to learn to love and appreciate the vulture.  I am especially intrigued by animals that have fascinating adaptations, and you do not get more unique than vultures--especially the New World vultures (those from North and South America).

More closely related to storks than other birds of prey, New World vultures do not have strong grasping feet and talons.  They have weak, chicken-like feet.  Since they cannot defend themselves with their feet, they projectile vomit at any predators that dare approach after they have gorged themselves.

The white film is a result of urohydrosis

They also cannot sweat, so not only will they pant to cool off (like other birds), but they will go to the bathroom down the backs of their own legs, and the evaporation cools them off by about ten to twelve degrees almost instantly.  This delightful adaptation is known as urohydrosis.  With crazy adaptations like these, how could I not become fascinated by vultures?  Luckily for me there are plenty of New World vultures at World Bird Sanctuary.

The first vulture I worked with was a turkey vulture.  After dealing with an enclosure holding six Turkey Vultures I determined humanity to be very lucky that they do not hunt live prey. 

Baton Rouge, our big beautiful King Vulture, was next, but I don’t think I ever really appreciated a vulture until I had to train one. 
Here you see Trina, one of our naturalists, flying a Black Vulture

Every vulture I had worked with up until last year was already trained; I just got to reap the benefits.  Vader, our 3-year-old Black Vulture, was not.  Well, that is not entirely true. He knew how to go into a crate (after a refresher course) and go to a perch, but he had never been in a WBS zoo show program before.  He proved to be a delightful challenge (and I do not mean that sarcastically).
Vader's natural curiosity makes him difficult to photograph

Vader, due to his young age, is incredibly curious (making it very difficult to photograph him!).  He is also easily startled and frightened.  Being a black vulture, he is also highly social, something we use to our advantage. 

If Vader were afraid of something, say a new toy or location, we could often get him over that fear simply by showing him that whatever was scaring him was not dangerous.  There is a gate on the stage at the Milwaukee County Zoo that leads into our backstage area.  Vader needed to pass through this gate in order to get onstage.  At first he was afraid to go through the narrow opening, even with tasty food on the other side!  We opened the other half of the gate so that his passageway would be wider, but still he hesitated.  Then one day I walked through it with him--success!  He followed at my side like a puppy, and after that he had no trouble with the gate, even when he had to pass through it alone.  Once through the gate he galloped across the stage to the sheer delight of the audience.  Nothing brings a smile to the audience’s faces quite like a Black Vulture galloping.

The “vulture see/vulture do” method does not always work, however.  Vader is still afraid of stumps, and despite my climbing up on top of the fence so he would hop up to me atop the fencepost, we could not get him over this fear.  He did seem very confused and upset that he could not reach me.  This is still a work in progress.
As he matures Vader will lose this ruff of black feathers

Luckily Vader is still young and so he is still learning.  He is very affectionate for a vulture, bobbing his head madly and “shnuring” (one of the sounds pertinent to a vulture) every time we come into the building. In fact his hissing/grunting, stalking walk, in combination with the hood of feathers on his neck, is what earned him the name Vader.  Over time he will lose the small black feathers on his head and his hood will recede, giving him a bald head so that it can stay nice and clean once he sticks it inside a carcass. 

With the right training and patience, eventually he will also become braver and may one day follow in the footsteps of our other great black vultures. He is off to an excellent start!

Submitted by Leah Tyndall, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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