Vultures Don’t Get No Respect!

In the United States there are two fairly common species of vulture that are members of the raptor family, the Black Vulture, and the Turkey Vulture. Like the popular standup comic Rodney Dangerfield’s famous catch phrase, “I don’t get no respect,” these essential scavengers are often shunned by humans, considered unattractive, and viewed negatively in folklore and mythology. Some Native American tribes consider them unclean and symbols of death. A common perception of vultures is that when seen flying overhead, it’s an omen of danger or death.

The truth is vultures play an incredibly important role in the environment because they eat dead animals that most other predators won’t. They have adapted perfectly to a life of consuming carrion.

One example of this adaptation is that they have no feathers on their heads and necks which helps keep them clean when eating decaying meat. Another amazing example of adaptation is their powerful stomach acid that allows them to digest rotting things without contracting such dangers as rabies, botulism, distemper, and anthrax. One of nature’s most valuable workers, they eliminate putrid meat that could spread tuberculosis and rabies!

The main visual difference between these two species is that the Turkey Vulture has a pinkish head and the Black Vulture (you guessed it) has a black head. Turkey Vultures can be found all across America, while Black Vultures have a more limited range mostly in the mid-Atlantic and southern regions of the U.S.

You will usually see vultures soaring in the sky in a circular pattern with their wings raised slightly making a “V” shape. It’s believed that this flying style lets them glide at low altitudes keeping close to the ground to smell for food. Turkey Vultures have an incredibly acute sense of smell, which enables them to locate carrion. Their sense of smell is so sensitive that they can detect dead meat from 8 miles away! They try to get to dead animals as quickly as possible since they actually prefer fresh meat. Turkey Vultures are clever foragers; they will often wait for the carcass to soften which makes is easier for them to pierce the skin and eat the soft parts first. They are clever foragers eating the softest parts first.

Strange but true: The only sound a Turkey Vulture can make is a hiss as they lack vocal organs. They will hiss when alarmed or frightened.

Not everyone dislikes vultures. They are honored in the town of Hinckley, Ohio where an entire day is dedicated to them! The town celebrates “Buzzard Day” on March 15th every year since 1957. The community comes together as they welcome Turkey Vultures back from migration for the summer.

Now it’s TMI time. Black Vultures have dark feathers, which absorb heat easily. To cool themselves off, they often urinate on their legs to cool the blood which helps them moderate their body temperature. When startled, Black Vultures may regurgitate semi-digested food to scare off predators and lessen their weight for flight.

Black Vultures often hang out with Turkey Vultures, but not because they’re good buddies. Turkey Vultures have a much keener sense of smell and Black Vultures take advantage of this and follow them to a carcass. Many times, the more aggressive Black Vultures will chase away their benefactors to have the food all to themselves.

If you see vultures soaring above you, you can easily tell which are Black Vultures by their silvery wingtips. Black Vultures are excellent parents and loyal mates and will vigorously defend their nest, eggs, and young. Oddly, these vultures build their nests on the ground in stumps, caves, thickets, brush piles, or hollow trees without using any nesting material!

Vultures may have a face only a mother could love but they definitely get my respect!

Ross A. FeldnerRCC Board Member

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss Feldner is the lead, with Bob Musil, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program. Ross is a life-long birder and photographer who is the editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a frequent birding spot for Rachel Carson who first learned about the health effects of DDT at the laboratory there. He is also the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD.