“Spooky” Turkey Vultures Deserve Respect
By Mark Armstrong
Broadcast 10.25 & 10.28.2023
It’s Halloween season, and it’s making me think about creepy creatures. Turkey Vultures, for instance. Why are they so feared and misunderstood? If a bird popularity contest were held, Turkey Vultures would not fare very well. A spooky bird contest, on the other hand? Dead winner.
When we think of Turkey Vultures, most see menacing black birds, flying low over the landscape with creepy, v-shaped wings, looking for the dead. The bald, red head and hunched neck rising from the dark feathers reminds us of a grim undertaker. Vultures have set the tone in many Western movies, circling above and ready to pick the bones of both good (and bad) guys on their last legs in the desert.
Scary shows aside, there’s no denying Turkey Vultures are on the lookout for death. A group of them can pick a carcass clean within 20 minutes, with nothing left to become a breeding ground for pathogens. Their strong stomach acids and robust immune systems can neutralize bacteria and diseases like anthrax, botulism, rabies, and tuberculosis. That’s quite the recycling service for such a “revolting” bird.
While some associate vultures with morbidity, many cultures have revered them for their spiritual and symbolic value. Nekhbet, the vulture goddess, was believed to protect Upper Egypt with her large wings. Condors, a type of vulture, have been depicted in artwork across the Andes in South America since 2500 BC. They have long been associated with power, strength, and wisdom. In Tibet, vultures are viewed as sacred and are used in sky burials, consuming the bodies of the recently dead and allowing souls to be reincarnated.
On a recent vacation to the southern Oregon Coast, we watched eight Turkey Vultures feasting on a young sea lion carcass that had washed ashore at low tide. Three of the dominant birds systematically opened the body while the five subordinate vultures patiently observed from 25 yards away. They had no fear of us, and they had an efficient, orderly approach to their meal.
Many are disgusted by vultures because they live exclusively on carrion, and feature bare, featherless heads. But those bald heads help to prevent the gore from clinging to the bird and causing infection. And many other animals will take a free meal, too, not wasting time and energy on “making a kill.” Revered creatures like Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, grizzly bears, foxes, and wolves will all opportunistically feed on the dead…yet, they are still seen as noble and beautiful.
Moving past disgust to curiosity, it’s easy to see how fascinating Turkey Vultures are. They have powerful beaks, sharp vision, and the largest olfactory system of all birds. Relying more on smell than sight, Turkey Vultures can fly over a dense forest canopy, smelling and then spotting their prey from a mile away. With a wingspan up to 70 inches, Turkey Vultures are one of three vultures in the Americas—the other two species are the California Condor and the Black Vulture. New World vultures are more closely related to storks than to members of the hawk family. The resemblance to storks can be seen in the Turkey Vulture’s feet, which are weak, webbed, and ill-suited to grasp prey. Strange how a stork with its scaly, bald head represents the bringing of babies, yet the vulture is seen as a harbinger for death.
A few years ago, we lost our beautiful 6-year old cat, Max. After worrying about him for a week, I saw the telltale sign of vultures hovering in low circles over our pasture. With a heavy heart, I walked through the sagebrush and found him. With their keen senses, the vultures located him and allowed us to say goodbye with a proper burial. We have those spooky Turkey Vultures to thank for that gift.
They may not win any beauty contests, and they may always evoke some fear in us. But, Turkey Vultures play a critical and respectable role in our interdependent cycle of life…and death.
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