Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mother Nature's Garbage Men

Let me introduce you to Kinsey, a five-year-old turkey vulture that resides here at the World Bird Sanctuary. 
 Kinsey playing with his leash (photo by Christina McAlpin)

Kinsey was brought in to our Katherine G. Favre Wildlife Hospital by concerned citizens.  They observed that he couldn’t fly away.  He had apparently injured his right wing at some time in the past and it didn’t heal correctly.  Due to the injury he could only fly a couple feet off the ground.  When Kinsey was found he was super thin and barely alive. 

After being nursed back to health by our hospital staff it was determined that he would never be able to fly well enough to survive in the wild.  Consequently he was transferred to the care of our Education Department and trained by our staff to become an education bird.  When Kinsey isn’t at an education program educating the public about his species he is at our visitor’s center teaching the visiting public about Turkey Vultures. 

Kinsey has a great “personality.”  He loves to sun himself, and play with his blue tug of war toy.  He is shy and nervous when he first meets a new trainer, but once he gets to know you he is very sweet.

By most people’s standards the Turkey Vulture is an extremely gross bird, along with other vultures in its family.  When a vulture feels threatened they will vomit all over whatever it is that is threatening them.  It smells horrible and will make predators run away.
When visiting you may see wild Turkey Vultures sunning or looking for a free meal (photo by Gay Schroer)

Turkey Vultures primarily eat carrion (dead animals).  The turkey vulture can smell its food a mile away, unlike many other birds (eg. Hawks, owls, sparrows), which have little to no sense of smell.  These new world (meaning from North and South America) vultures will pee down their legs in the summertime to keep cool.  Through evaporation this works the same way for them as when people get out of a swimming pool or lake and the wind blows on their wet bodies, producing goose bumps.  Peeing down their legs allows them to cool off when the wind blows during those blistering summer days. 

Though these birds eat week old dead animals, vomit when threatened, and pee down their legs, they are extremely important to our environment.  Not many people would want to go pick up all the dead animals on the side of roads.  If we did pick them up we would risk getting sick from the bacteria and diseases harbored by that carcass.  New world vultures have very strong stomach acid.  It is a ph of one, which is the same as battery acid.  Any disease known to humans dies as soon as it hits their stomach.  We like to refer to the vultures as “mother natures’ garbage men”. 

So the next time you see a turkey vulture flying in the sky think of how they are saving you from getting sick, instead of all the gross things they do.
Turk, one of our senior citizen vultures (photo by Gay Schroer)

If you visit WBS to see Kinsey and some of his other brethren, be sure to walk down the exhibit line beyond the hospital where we have an entire exhibit populated with these “garbage men”.  Chances are at least one of them will come right up to the fence and shadow your movements as you walk up or down the path

Submitted by Christina McAlpin, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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