Column: Turkey vultures may seem ugly - until you see them flyWhen most people think about wildlife rehabilitation, they picture fluffy baby birds, fuzzy bunnies, and stilt-legged fawns. Creatures that society deems ugly or less desirable, such as vultures, don’t usually come to mind.
By: Michele Trautlein, For the Budgeteer News
When most people think about wildlife rehabilitation, they picture fluffy baby birds, fuzzy bunnies, and stilt-legged fawns. Creatures that society deems ugly or less desirable, such as vultures, don’t usually come to mind.
In mid-July, a member of the general public brought in an injured, emaciated turkey vulture she’d found. After we treated the bird’s dehydration and pain, we sent it to the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. The veterinarians there discovered that it had been shot, resulting in unfixable fractures of one of its wings. The bird had no hope of recovery, so was euthanized.
So, who cares if we lose a vulture? They’re not majestic like eagles or beautiful like swans, right? In fact, many people think they’re ugly and smelly. And what good are vultures anyway?
Vultures always remind me of “the odd kid” in school, the one everybody picks on. They have a lurching gait, they hiss and grunt, and their heads are red and wrinkly. They seem strange and unlovely ... until you see them fly. Then you realize just how beautiful and special they are. A turkey vulture balanced lightly on a thermal, wings outstretched in a graceful “V” is a lovely sight!
The “turkey” part of this bird’s common name comes from the fact that when the vulture is on the ground, it resembles a turkey. The “vulture” part probably comes from the Latin verb “vellere” — to tear.
“Turkey vulture” — it’s a good, functional name. However, the scientific name — Cathartes aura — is pure poetry, meaning “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”
And that name is even more accurate, for vultures are part of nature’s cleaning crew.
The first image that comes to mind for many when they hear the word “vulture” is that of vultures circling overhead, waiting for something
However, turkey vultures don’t wait for their meals to die. They seek out carcasses, gliding low over the forest while constantly smelling the air for the scent of putrefying flesh. Their janitorial services keep us free from the sights and smells of death, as well as diseases that might come with it.
Here are some fun turkey vulture facts:
• Vultures have bare heads because skin is easier to keep clean than feathers.
• Turkey vultures have an amazing sense of smell, and fly low to detect the scent of dead animals.
• The high acid content of the vulture’s stomach, as well as some special enzymes, kills viruses or bacteria in the rotting meat that is consumed.
• When turkey vultures feel threatened, they vomit, lightening themselves for escape. This smelly mess may also divert potential predators.
• The turkey vulture lacks the equivalent of a bird’s vocal cords, so it has no actual “bird” call. It can only hiss and grunt.
• Turkey vultures are known to the Cherokee as “peace eagles” because they never kill.
• They are gentle, inquisitive birds who have been known play tug of war with objects. Groups of vultures have been observed playing with items in people’s yards.
While vultures may not be the most attractive of birds, they are one of the most essential.
People in India are learning about the importance of vultures the hard way. After Indian farmers began giving Diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory drug) to their cattle, vultures began dying in droves. Diclofenac is fatal to vultures, and a vulture that feeds on a dead cow recently treated with this drug will die.
The collapse of the vulture population in India has had some dire consequences. Most notably, the feral dog population has exploded, and the number of cases of human rabies (most of which are acquired from dog bites) has skyrocketed. There are now many thousands of cases of human rabies every year; 70 percent of those affected are children. The economic cost of treating so many cases of rabies is huge.
So the next time you look up at the sky and see the characteristic V-shape of a soaring vulture, pause and take it in. And after you enjoy the beauty of the bird in flight, look around and notice the absence of
carcasses, then take a breath of fresh, sweet-smelling air.
Then you’ll be truly grateful for vultures and all they do to keep our surroundings healthy and clean!
To learn more about wildlife and how you can help, including how to become a volunteer, go to www.wildwoodsrehab.org.
Michele Trautlein is a volunteer with Wildwoods, a wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth.