People often make the mistake of applying their moral system to animals, which is made clear when you ask people their opinion of vultures. To eat the dead is disgusting, and for an animal to live off the rotting flesh of the deceased seems to be perceived by people as an act bordering on sin. But nature does not recognize a human morality, and all species that exist in nature exist because it fulfills a need. This concept is made clear when you take a close look at the Turkey Vulture. It is an amazing bird that occupies a unique niche in the ecosystem, a niche so specialized that evolution has done wonders adapting it to this life.
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)
Let’s start with removing a misconception. The Turkey Vulture doesn’t like rotten meat, it prefers its carrion (dead animal) freshly deceased. It finds its meal by using its extremely well developed sense of smell, something most other birds lack. When an animal dies, it releases particular gasses which the Turkey Vulture can detect from miles away. It is a very large bird with up to a six-foot wingspan, and because of its size, after a big meal it has to make a series of awkward hops just to get into the air. But once in the air, it becomes one of the most energy efficient fliers. It glides gracefully and slowly over the open land. It is able to do this because it takes advantage of thermals, pockets of warm rising air, that push it up high and allow it to soar. It turns slow circles on its V-shaped wings, with its feathers spread out like fingers at the tips of its wings.
It is best to spot them in the morning as they float over rural roads smelling for last night’s roadkill, and only in summer since they migrate to Mexico and South America in the winter to breed.
The Turkey Vulture’s bald head helps keep its skin disease-free as it feeds, and its incredibly acidic stomach and powerful immune system keeps it safe from diseases that would kill other animals, diseases such as botulism, anthrax, salmonella, and e-coli. Unlike most birds, the Turkey Vulture lacks the vocal organs to make regular bird calls. As a result, they make hisses and grunts that are a bit frightening to hear, so make sure to check them out here.
The Turkey Vulture plays a vital role in its ecological system and is very good at it. It is because of this, that its scientific name is Cathartes aura, Golden Purifier.
A special thanks to Seth Hall of The Jornada Experimental Range for lending his bird expertise.
Photo Credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cathartes_aura_-Florida_-USA_-flying-8-4c.jpg and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turkey_Vulture_feeding.jpg
Audio: Cornell Lab of Ornithology