Thursday, December 10, 2015

Those Fascinating Vultures

Most people are not big fans of vultures.  They were never really a number one favorite of mine either—at least not until I  started working with and learning about them at the World Bird Sanctuary.

Vultures come off as pretty gross birds.  They eat dead things, they projectile vomit as a self-defense mechanism, and New World vultures urinate on their legs to keep cool.  So, why are vultures such awesome birds?

Osiris the Egyptian Vulture is an Old World Vulture (photo: Gay Schroer)
For starters, vultures are super-important to our environment.  Without them, we would have an awful lot of dead things (carrion) lying around.  Rotting animals are breeding grounds for bacteria and disease.  Vultures help keep animal carcasses cleaned up, and thus help stop the spread of most diseases—positives in both a visual way (no one enjoys seeing dead animals all over the place) and health aspects of human life.

If animal carcasses harbor so much bacteria and disease, how can vultures eat them without getting sick?  Well, vultures have super strong stomach acids that can kill the bacteria, making them a dead end for disease.  Their strong stomach acid also helps them out quite a bit with that projectile vomit they use for defense against predators.  Their stomach acid is so strong that it can even strip the paint off of a car!  It’s a good thing they have it, though, because it helps us out with diseases and bacteria.

Vader the Black Vulture is a New World Vulture native to the southern United States (photo: Gay Schroer)
Vultures also have some of the neatest personalities.  Each vulture I have worked with so far has been completely different from the others.  Goober, the Black Vulture, gets very excited for his food and he even skips and makes barking noises!  Desi, the Hooded Vulture, seems rambunctious and is very gung ho about flying in shows.  Mortimer, the Turkey Vulture, is a dominant bird that seems to know exactly what he wants while Kinsey, another Turkey Vulture, seems a little bit shy around crowds.  Each vulture is very unique, even amongst the same species.  They each have their own personalities, and I feel privileged to get to work with them.
Desi, the Hooded Vulture, is an Old World vulture (photo: Gay Schroer)
There are also big differences between New World and Old World vultures.  New World vultures, such as the Andean Condor, Turkey Vulture, and Black Vulture urinate on their legs to keep cool when it is hot outside.  Old World vultures, like the Hooded Vulture, Egyptian Vulture, and Bearded Vulture don’t do this behavior.  It may seem gross, but it also acts as a natural anti-bacterial by killing germs on their legs and feet.
Skinner, a New World Turkey Vulture, displays his beautiful feather pattern (photo: Gay Schroer)
Several New World vulture species live in groups with social hierarchies, whereas Old World vultures typically live solitary lives.  Old World vultures also have a strong grip in their feet, whereas New World vultures do not.  If you look at a Turkey Vulture’s feet, they look fairly similar to those of a stork or crane.  New World vultures are actually more closely related to cranes or herons than they are to Old World vultures.  They are superficially similar due to convergent evolution, which in this case means both kinds of vultures evolved to feed on dead animals.  They aren’t closely related, but they evolved similar traits because they had to adapt to similar environments and feeding habits.

Vultures are super interesting and they have become some of my favorite birds.  I am so glad that I have the opportunity to work with them each day and learn more about their unique traits.

The next time you visit the World Bird Sanctuary be sure to take a really close look at our resident vultures.  You, too, may find that they are truly fascinating birds.

Any of the vultures mentioned in this article can be adopted via our Adopt A Bird program.

Submitted by Kelsey McCord, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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