Death Week: An Ode to the Baddest Bird Around

Black vulture in the Florida Everglades (Courtesy Emily Walker)

Read installments one and two of the Get to Know Your Backyard Birds series.

On Halloween, thirteen reasons to love the stately vulture.

  1. They clean up dead stuff so we don’t have to.
  2. Vultures are highly sociable birds. Families roost and feed together–so when you see a posse of vultures descending on a bit of roadkill, they’re not a random assortment of birds all lured by the scent of carrion. They’re likely kin who’ve followed each other from roosts that, one scientist writes, “probably function as information centers.”
  3. They’re monogamous—really. Despite evidence to the contrary in many species that were formerly thought to be monogamous, research suggests that vultures tend to adhere to strict monogamy. A study of sixteen black vulture families found no sign of extrapair fertilizations—nestlings with baby daddies.
  4. One reason monogamy might be incentivized among black vultures: the communal roost allegedly discourages infidelity by attacking adulterous vultures. I have been unable to verify this claim in the scientific literature, though it makes for an intriguing and oft-repeated story.
  5. Mama and daddy vultures share baby-rearing duties equally. Long-term pairs can raise up to three chicks per year, and both parents incubate the eggs and feed the nestlings.
  6. Their bald, wattled heads may be ugly as sin, but they’re functional. If you eat rotting flesh for a living, it’s difficult to minimize your contact with nasty bacteria. But a lack of feathers and the sanitizing effect of the sun keeps down the growth of parasites.
  7. Vultures have iron immune systems. What happens when vultures ingest those nasty bacteria and viruses? Usually nothing. The birds have evolved highly acidic stomachs that neutralize all but the hardiest microbes. That’s especially fabulous news for humans who might otherwise be tasked with cleaning up animals that have died of zoonotic diseases.
  8. Vultures ain’t got time for songbird trills and frills. In fact, they don’t even have a voicebox—which means they’re limited to a throaty repertoire of hisses and grunts, aka the most metal sounds ever. Need to romance a lady vulture? Kkkkrrrrkkkk. Someone getting uppity at the deer corpse? SssssckkkKKK.
  9. The largest birds ever known were vultures. Seven million years ago, South America was running the planet’s grandest experiment in evolution—after millions upon millions of years of isolation, the continent was ruled by oversized predators and bizarre mammals for whom there are no modern complements. Meter-long piranhas and crocodilians as long as school buses prowled the waters; multi-ton giant ground sloths and VW Beetle-sized armadillos grazed in savannas and forests. To clean up after these enormous herbivores, you needed equally large scavengers. Teratorns (literally “monster bird”) were relatives of modern day vultures, the largest of which, Argentavis magnificens, clocked in with an over twenty-foot wingspan.
  10. According to the CDC, 4.5 million Americans are bit by dogs every year. The CDC does not keep stats on vultures, but they are generally peaceable, shy birds. I can find no record of humans being attacked or bitten by a vulture. However, your chances increase exponentially upon death.
  11. The vulture’s defense mechanism of choice is vomiting. Seriously–never, ever sneak up on a vulture. Remember that highly acidic stomach full of dead meat? Vultures will eject its contents when threatened. Perhaps uncoincidentally, vultures have few natural predators.
  12. Though common in the Americas, Old World vultures are disappearing at staggering rates, due in large part to the widespread use of a veterinary drug called Diclofenac, which causes kidney failure in vultures that consume the bodies of contaminated livestock. The drug has been banned in India, but the ban is poorly enforced. In Africa, poachers deliberately poison their kills to eliminate vultures, whose circling can pinpoint the location of illegal activities. Humans may not remark much on the ways in which we benefit from vultures, but we’ll certainly feel their absence should these species go extinct.
  13. You may not find them majestic, but vultures don’t give a shit. They’re exquisitely designed to clean up the mess left by death, and there’s much to admire in their democratic behavior. In the United States, you can look up almost anywhere and see the great wingspan of a vulture aloft on a warm air current. I used to mistake them for something grander, like an eagle, and then grow disappointed to find just a common black or turkey vulture. These days, I like ’em just the way they are.
Black vultures cleaning up the carcass of a wild hog, Florida (Courtesy Emily Walker)

Black vultures cleaning up the carcass of a wild hog, Florida (Courtesy Emily Walker)

ERIN WEEKS was not paid by the Turkey Vulture Society to write this. She is a science writer at Duke University.

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