When I was a young girl, many, many years back, my Mom and I often picked wild strawberries as a special summer treat for that night’s dessert. On one occasion, as I bent down to loosen a bunch of sweet little red berries from their stemsout of the corner of my eye something caught my attention. I looked past our neighbor’s house, and into the sky over’Sugar Hill’, where I had enjoyed watching so many awesomely beautiful sunsets. A large dark bird with an impressive wingspan was moving silently and slowly, circling in the sky over the hill.
“What IS that, Mom?” My mom stopped picking berries and stood upright, shading her eyes from the bright sun. “Oh”, she said with a positive note,”that’s a turkey vulture riding a thermal.”
Gentle, caring and devoted parents
Do not spread any diseases at all, contrary to popular beliefs
Crucial part of Nature’s cleanup crew
Perform removal of carcasses before they can become diseased
Purify environment by eliminating animal cadavers that are already infected
Considered sacred in certain cultures for their gift of sanitizing
Enjoy soaring on high using hot thermals to lift them ever upward
Resemble wild turkeys with their reddish featherless head, dark body and two-tone wings
When you think of vultures, what images come to mind? Lazy, dirty, aggressive, morbid harbingers of death? While those are clear responses, I fear they’re based on pictures conjured up by Hollywood Westerns.
The black vultures most often seen from the west and south throughout Mexico are indeed competitive.
Common all over america, it’s the turkey vulture that uses its highly developed ability to detect the stench of cadavers, even at great distances. These large eagle-sized birds sport distinctive two-toned wings that are dark brown, with silvery gray feathers on their wing edges.
Turkey vulture heads are small and featherless for an excellent reason. Consider it–similar to workmen dress for the job, these birds do exactly the opposite. They undress (their heads) for the task at hand. If their noggins had feathers, they would find all gummed up when they dove into carcasses. It’s not pretty, but it is true. Vultures would be spending far too much of their time preening and cleaning rather than filling their bellies. The smaller head size enables them to get into all the nooks and crannies where the meat is. In the bird world, efficiency most often translates to survival.
When the young hatch from their excellently camouflaged eggs, they are powerless to defend or feed themselves. Their parents are aware for possible predatory attacks, and they are adept at providing plenty of food for their downy chicks for another 60 to 80 days.
In some cultures they are revered as cleansers and sprays. Buddhists think they have the ability to release the soul and take it to Heaven. So it’s a routine practice to offer their deceased to vultures for’cleansing’ and delivery into the firmament, also known as’sky burials’.
Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, actually translates to either’purifying breeze’ or’golden purifier’. Both of the interpretations is more accurate than the word’vulture’, which means to rip.
They’ll take turns, as opposed to fight over bits and pieces of flesh. Other birds, like the smaller black vultures and hawks, find it easy to push them away out of their own finds.
Possessing excellent immune systems prevents them from contracting any nasty diseases from the dead creatures they ingest. When roosting on the ground or atop a dead tree stump, they spread their wings outward with their backs to the sun to help rid them of parasites contracted by their food resources.
If they feel afraid or threatened they regurgitate (often in the direction of the perceived threat). This offensive act repels, and takes their attacker by surprise, with the sight and awful odor. Additionally, it serves to lighten the load for a faster get away!
The unfounded fears that turkey vultures spread disease often prompts intentional shootings and unkind poisonings and trappings. But these birds keep the surroundings clean and disease free, rather than the reverse.
All living things have a role on this Earth. The much maligned Turkey Vulture serves a noble goal. We will need to look beyond the superficial idea of attractiveness, and provide the Turkey Vulture the reverence it has rightfully earned and deserves.