When I was a young girl, many, many years back, my Mom and I frequently 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 tiny red berries from their stalks, from the corner of my eye something grabbed my attention. I looked beyond our neighbor’s house, and into the sky above’Sugar Hill’, where I had enjoyed watching so many awesomely beautiful sunsets. A large dark bird with an impressive wingspan was moving quietly and slowly, circling in the skies over the hill.
“What IS that, Mother?” My mom stopped picking berries and stood upright, shading her eyes from the bright sunlight. “Oh”, she said with a positive note,”that’s a turkey vulture riding a thermal.”
The truth about turkey vultures:
Gentle, caring and dedicated 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 some cultures for their gift of sanitizing
Enjoy soaring on high with hot thermals to lift them upward
Resemble wild turkeys with their red featherless head, dark body and two-tone wings
Lazy, dirty, aggressive, morbid harbingers of death? While those are clear responses, I fear they are based on pictures conjured up by Hollywood Westerns.
The black vultures most often seen in the west and south throughout Mexico are indeed competitive.
Common all over the United States, it is the turkey vulture which uses its highly developed ability to detect the stench of cadavers, even at great distances. These large eagle-sized birds game distinctive two-toned wings which are dark brown, with silvery gray feathers on their wing borders.
Turkey vulture heads are small and featherless for an excellent reason. Think about 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 instead of 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 into survival.
When the young hatch from their excellently camouflaged eggs, they are powerless to defend or feed themselves. Their parents are ever watchful for possible predatory attacks, and they are adept at providing loads of food for their downy chicks for the next 60 to 80 days.
In some cultures they’re revered as cleansers and sprays. Buddhists believe they have the ability to release the soul and take it to Heaven. So it’s a routine practice to provide their deceased to vultures for’cleansing’ and delivery to the firmament, also known as’sky burials’.
Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, actually translates to either’purifying breeze’ or’golden purifier’. Either of those interpretations is more precise than the term’vulture’, which means to rip.
They’ll take turns, as opposed to fight over bits and pieces of flesh. Other birds, such as the black vultures and hawks, find it easy to drive them away from their own finds.
Possessing excellent immune systems keeps them from contracting any nasty diseases from the dead animals they ingest. When roosting on the floor or atop a dead tree stump, they spread their wings outward with their backs to the sun to help rid them of parasites contracted from their food resources.
If they feel afraid or threatened they regurgitate (often in the direction of the perceived threat). This offensive action 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 frequently prompts intentional shootings and cruel poisonings and people calling Palm Bay Raccoon Removal for trapping. However, these birds keep the surroundings clean and disease free, as opposed to the reverse.
As humans, I think we sometimes tend to equate beauty with goodness, and ugliness with evil. The much maligned Turkey Vulture serves a noble purpose. We will need to look past the superficial idea of attractiveness, and provide the Turkey Vulture the reverence it has rightfully earned and deserves.