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SCOTT SHALAWAY Turkey vultures, not buzzards



Published: Sun, April 14, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Several turkey vultures circle overhead, no doubt searching for one of the many dead deer that dot the countryside.

Riding the wind's currents like a kite on a string, the vultures demonstrate aerial skills that no doubt inspired the likes of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

Later in the day on my way to town, I pass two vultures feasting on a freshly road-killed ground hog that only recently emerged from a long winter sleep. By the next day, only the skeleton and bits of fur remain.

Their role: In a nutshell, that's the role of vultures in nature. They are scavengers, nature's recyclers. They consume whatever disease, winter kill, reckless drivers, and careless hunters leave behind. In the grand scheme, thanks to vultures and other such scavengers, nothing goes to waste.

Each spring they return, not to sing beautiful songs, but to clean up the carrion that litters the landscape.

Two species of vultures inhabit the eastern U.S.

The more widespread species is the turkey vulture, characterized by a naked, red head perched atop a large dark body (hence "turkey" vulture) and wings held in a shallow "V" in flight.

Black vultures, on the other hand, are more common in the southeast. Their naked heads are black, and they hold their wings flatter in flight.

A misnomer: Many people call vultures "buzzards". This misnomer dates back to the 1600s when Europeans began colonizing the New World. In Europe large hawks like our red-tail were (and still are) called buzzards. When the settlers arrived, they called all the large soaring birds buzzards. And the name stuck. To hear vultures called buzzards grates me as much as hearing deer antlers called horns.

If you've ever seen a vulture up close, perhaps in a zoo, you know it will never make a list of the continent's most beautiful birds. But many vulture habits are even more revolting than their appearance.

Their table manners immediately come to mind. Turkey vultures eat dead, rotting and even putrid flesh. The more aromatic, the better. Field experiments have shown that turkey vultures use odors to find food. Unlike most birds, turkey vultures have a well developed sense of smell. And compared to other raptors, a vulture's bill and talons are relatively weak. Decayed meat is tender and easier to tear apart than fresh meat.

Why no feathers: Vultures' taste for carrion also explains why they have featherless heads. Because vultures spend so much time poking their heads into dead body cavities, their head feathers would be forever soiled. The naked head is an adaptation that promotes cleanliness.

But vultures don't restrict their crude habits to eating. During hot weather they practice evaporative cooling by urinating on their legs. And if cornered in their nesting cavity or cave, vultures discourage predators (and overzealous ornithologists) by regurgitating a foul, soupy concoction in the direction of the intruder.

Though I've never experienced this myself, I've known several biologists who have, and they all insist it is an effective deterrent.

Most people never witness any of these offensive behaviors because vultures are usually seen flying overhead, often at great heights.

Vultures rarely flap their wings. They're usually content to ride the atmosphere's thermal currents. That's why you usually don't see vultures in flight until mid-morning. They wait for the sun to warm the earth, which triggers the rising thermals.

Vultures nest on the ground in dense thickets, in caves, in large hollow logs, and sometimes in abandoned barns. Typically vultures lay two eggs, and both sexes incubate the eggs for 35 to 40 days. Both parents also feed the young, by regurgitation. Young vultures can fly at 10 to 11 weeks of age.

Unfair comparison: It's easy to dismiss vultures as vile creatures, but it's unfair to compare their behaviors to our own. Vulture habits are disgusting to us because they violate our most basic codes of every day living. But to a vulture such habits are normal, natural, and adaptive. A creature needn't be warm and fuzzy to warrant our admiration and respect. In nature, animals seek only to survive and reproduce.

sshalaway@aol.com




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