Vulture: Villain or Virtuoso?

Story and photos by Derek Doeffinger

Did you snap awake this morning, as I did, and suddenly realize the answer to the question, “What do I have in common with Stan Lee of Marvel Comic Book fame and Franz Kafka of college literature fame?” If so, you’ve come to the right article.
Like many of us, those two 20th-century literary giants were smitten with vultures. In the 1960s, Lee concocted the second criminal nemesis of Spider-Man and named him the Vulture (he will be resurrected in this summer’s Spider-Man movie); decades earlier Franz Kafka used a short story to demonize a vulture that torments and ultimately kills a man trying to escape yet another Kafkian web.
But they both got it wrong. Vultures aren’t villains. In reality, vultures are amazing animals, perhaps the most amazing creature in the Finger Lakes Region. What makes them amazing are the incredible adaptations they’ve developed to take on a very specialized and critical niche of the ecosystem: the consumption of corpses. In short, they’re scavengers; eaters of carrion, roadkill dumpster divers.

Tools of the trade
It’s not easy being an elite scavenger. One needs very specific tools – tools that have been refined over the eons. Let’s start out with a tool that can, from a human perspective, inflict great humiliation. At one time or another, we’ve all been humiliated at the, um … hands of a bird. Dive-bombed by a nesting jay? Yep. Pursued by a hungry gull? More like a flock. Plopped by a pigeon? Don’t remind me.
But that’s nothing, according to Dr. Kevin McKowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and co-author of the recently released book “The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of New York.” When it comes to suffering bird-inflicted indignities, he gives the nod to the turkey vulture because “being puked on by a turkey vulture is a memorable experience.”
Why would a vulture vomit on you? McGowan explains that it’s a defensive mechanism deployed when a vulture feels threatened. Like a skunk’s spray, it repels enemies. But it’s not just the stench. Filled with powerful stomach acids, it’s also corrosive. The adaptation of strong stomach acids enables vultures to render harmless the deadly effects of salmonella bacteria and botulism toxins common in corpses, turning otherwise vile and revolting meals into vulture vittles.
But vultures have their limits. Corpses over a few days old don’t tempt them. Vultures would probably prefer fresh roadside kill but they can’t easily detect the recently deceased. Their detection system depends on another amazing adaptation – a superb sense of smell, which is quite unusual in most birds. Within a day of dying, the odor emitted by decaying animals can be detected by vultures over a mile away. Not all types of vultures excel in scent detection – many, such as the more southerly black vulture, simply follow turkey vultures and cut to the front of the dinner line.

Taking flight
To find and follow that scent and the meal it promises, turkey vultures rely on their most beautiful adaptation – giant wings that spread 6 feet across. Before they begin their day of corpse hunting, they prep for flight – typically an hour or so after the sun rises.
Morning begins in a tree roost hosting a dozen to several dozen vultures. When the direct rays of the sun reach them, they turn their backs. Looking like supplicant monks, they lift and extend their wings as if exalting in the glorious sun. But they aren’t.
They’re simply drying and warming up their wings, and using the sun’s ultraviolet radiation to kill bacteria on them.
As they warm up, so does the ground and air, creating thermals – invisible geysers of air streaming high into the sky. The vultures flap clumsily into these solar-powered elevators. As they’re lifted toward the sky they’re transformed from earthbound klutzes into the most efficient and graceful soarers you may ever see – hardly flapping a wing until they descend for lunch. Unlike the iconic circling vultures of cowboy westerns, turkey vultures are solo searchers. The thermals may carry them aloft as a group, but they soon separate and go their own ways to search for food.
From high above, a vulture monitors the air until it detects the odor of death, or spots another turkey vulture that has found food. (Their good eyesight complements their sense of smell.) Clumsy on the ground, a vulture walks to the dead animal and begins feasting – in a hierarchical order if a group is present. Lacking the tools to dispatch healthy prey, a vulture almost never kills animals, though it may hasten the demise of the nearly dead. Sometimes they will eat bugs, small rodents, and fish. (They have been reported to eat heron chicks.) A visit to a garbage dump is not out of the question.
Vultures tend to prefer the corpses of small- to medium-sized animals, such as rabbits, groundhogs, possums, coons and squirrels. Because they’re not strong enough to fly off with their finds, they can quickly eat small animals before a more powerful predator, like a coyote, bullies them off their find.  
Their unique heads enable eating carrion. Take a look at the head of a turkey vulture. You can’t help but stare at it. You don’t know whether to laugh or cringe. At first glance, it looks like a rusted farrier’s hammer, or perhaps an ancient crone peeking out from a giant feather boa. Instead, it’s simply a balding head wrapped in loose puckered skin sloping into a sculpted hooked beak of Durantic proportions.
It’s not only a work of art; it’s a work of design perfection. It can probe into and dismember carrion, and remain somewhat sanitary.
Here’s one last odd behavior that kids will find irresistible. On hot summer days, turkey vultures poop on their bare legs. Why? To cool down.
Awkward and agile, ugly and beautiful, savage and serene, simple and sophisticated, threatening and enthralling – the turkey vulture has intimidated many, intrigued some, and inspired a few, including Groucho Marx, who said, “I eat like a vulture. Unfortunately the resemblance doesn’t end there.”

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