They fly higher than eagles (or any bird for that matter), have a family tree more complicated than anyone ever thought and mean way more to us than we think they do! Vultures are an amazing group of birds that sadly has gotten a bad reputation in western culture. Normally associated with the villains in movies and untimely ends for characters, it seems vultures definitely haven’t gotten their days in the sun.
But why not?
Vultures are arguably the most disliked group of birds. It’s not terribly hard to see why with their bald heads and habit of feeding on the poor unfortunate souls of the earth. But the truth is that they’re important, majestic and truly powerful animals that deserve our respect and really should get the credit they deserve. So on the first Saturday of September, I’m celebrating International Vulture Awareness Day with a post all about these amazing, misunderstood and disappearing birds!
A strange Family
Before we can get into the awesomeness that is the vulture, it helps to know exactly what a vulture is. Vultures are relatively large birds of prey that (normally) lack feathers on the head and/or neck and mostly feed on dead animals. As with any animal, there are exceptions to every rule. The three members of the subfamily Gypaetinae all have diets that don’t entirely seem like they belong to vultures (bones, fruit and feces) and feathered heads and necks. But contrary to movies, pop culture, or your great-uncle that rides bison at the fair, they don’t circle animals that aren’t dead. They pick up on sight, smell and activity, so the only reason a vulture would be circling you is if you smelled like a rotting carcass, looked like a rotting carcass or had other scavengers all over you.
Around the world there are 22–23 species of vultures (depending on who you ask) spread out on 5 continents (all but Antarctica and Australia). Though there is a big family resemblance, they aren’t all related! Only 7 of them are only found in the New World (the Americas) as the others can be seen soaring above Europe, Africa and Asia and are known as the Old World vultures.
I know what you’re thinking, “But Sean, why not? They all look so similar, they fill the same niche, they’re all birds. They simply have to be related.”
This is a wonderful example of what’s called Convergent Evolution. This is when two unrelated animals (or groups of animals) happen upon the similar body plans, behaviors or other adaptations because they’re filling the same niche or just random chance.
Awesome avian abilities
One of my favorite abilities of vultures have to do with their amazing digestive system! When your entire diet is made up of disease riddled, bacteria covered and partially decayed meat, you really have to bump up your body’s ability to take in potentially dangerous material.
The stomach of a Vulture is so acidic that they can eat meat contaminated with rabies, cholera and even anthrax and kill the pathogens in their digestive tract! This makes their unloved family really important for the removal of diseases from an ecosystem as one of the few groups of animals that can eliminate those pathogens from the environment.
When your stomach contains bathroom cleaner (or higher) level acids, your urine can be used as a disinfectant! Vultures will cool their legs down and clean them by defecating on their legs. The acidic urea acts as a cleaner to remove any bacteria picked up by walking around, on and in dead things. As the fluid dries it cools down the legs and helps the bird regulate its temperature. It may seem gross, but that also means that they can remain (relatively) clean and carry as few pathogens as possible on their bodies.
In order to find food, the vast majority of vultures will use their amazing eyesight to spot food or activity from thousands of feet up (or -in the case of the record setting Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture- 37,000 feet!) but for the three members of the Cathartes genus, they have a superpower so helpful, other species follow them to carcasses. These three are some of VERY few birds that can smell and they’re pretty darn good at it. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) can smell a carcass as small as a rat buried underneath leaves in a forest from 300m (984 ft) in the air.
They need our love and attention
Did you know that a single vulture in with a 15 year lifespan is worth around $11,000 for removal of carcasses and disease prevention? A single vulture can eat around 2 pounds of meat in one sitting and a crowd can reduce a zebra to bones in 30 minutes! This ecosystem service can not only remove unsightly carcasses, but also cut down on feral dog numbers, rabies outbreaks, disease spread and even stop booms in rodent populations before they can start!
Sadly, vultures from across the board are poisoned by people intentionally and accidentally. Poachers of Rhinos and Elephants have been known to poison the carcasses of the animal to kill any vultures that come to feed in attempts to stay hidden from authorities. This leads to mass poisonings of already endangered vulture species.
India’s vulture populations are very slowly starting to bounce back after suffering as much as a 97% or more drop in population in a matter of 10-15 years. This was from incidental poisoning from a drug that was given to cattle to help fight disease. After it was seen as the cause of the vulture decline, the drug was quickly recalled and banned. The decline itself led to massive increases in rat and feral dog populations, rabies bites, spread of diseases and higher cost of living as residents have to pay a tax to have animal carcasses removed, burned or buried by the local government.
Even here in the United States vultures are either shot by people who fear them, hit by cars as they feed on roadkill or are at risk of lead poisoning from feeding on shot and unclaimed kills and consuming the bullet by mistake.
Our perception of these animals matter. If we want them to be treated like they are worth the amazing work they do, we have to understand that we must do our part to help them work. If you’re hunting, make sure to take your kill and clean it thoroughly and make sure no scraps are left behind that might hurt these amazing animals. If you hear someone talking bad about vultures, remind them of all the work they do to keep our world from being covered in carcasses, flies and rats.
Vultures should be seen in a light that doesn’t show them as symbols of evil, greedy and uncivilized behavior. They’re the powerful, majestic and underrated member of earth’s cleaning crew that keeps everything else working right.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed!
Are there any topics you’d like me to talk about? Or anything I may have missed? Don’t be afraid to leave a comment at the bottom to let me know what you think and also what your favorite animal is.
I’d tell you mine, but I’m afraid I’ll just carrion!