Why vultures poop on their legs (and more)

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By Dr. Deanna Tolliver, DVM
It’s something we’ve all seen. We’re cruising down the highway and see a dark speck ahead by the road. Closer, we see it’s a gathering of vultures dining on a bloated deer carcass. Yuk! They are SUCH disgusting birds, right? Well, yes, but vultures are Mother Nature’s clean-up crew. Hey, somebody’s got to do it!

First, let’s call them by their correct names. The vulture we most commonly see in North America is the turkey vulture, so named because its red, almost featherless head resembles that of our Thanksgiving turkey.

They belong to a family that includes the turkey vulture, the black vulture, and the California condor. Here are some little-known facts about these birds.

How do they find dead animals?
Because turkey vultures are often seen slowly soaring high in the sky, you might think they’re looking for their next meal. But, no, they aren’t looking, they’re smelling.

Turkey vultures are one of the very few birds that rely heavily on their sense of smell. If you look at a vulture’s head up close, you’ll see they have a large hole at the top of their beak — one very large nostril that increases the surface area for odors to pass over, magnifying their sense of smell, far better than most other birds.

Turkey vultures are strictly scavengers: They eat only dead meat, preferably herbivores such as deer, rarely carnivores. They don’t kill for their food. When you are out with your dog or cat, don’t worry about a turkey vulture attacking them.

Why don’t they have feathers on their heads?
Those heads are often submerged into the body cavities of dead animals. Pieces of dead meat would adhere to the feathers and cause bacterial skin infections.

Why don’t vultures get sick from eating rotten meat?
Vultures eat stuff that would kill most other birds, and mammals, too. They get by with it because the pH of their gastric fluids is about 1. On the pH scale, 1 is the most acidic. Not much can live in a pH of 1, even bacteria.

REALLY WEIRD!
Another adaptation is a very strange one. When turkey vultures get too warm in the summer months, they may defecate on their legs. This is called urohidrosis, and it accomplishes two things: It cools the skin on the legs and, because the pH is so acidic, it “sterilizes” the skin against bacteria.

Do turkey vultures have any predators?
Not really. The eggs and very young hatchlings can be eaten by owls, skunks, raccoons and snakes. Adult birds can become roadkill. Others die from being caught in fences or leg-hold traps. But there is a good reason why the adults are not prized by predators: When threatened they can project vomit! You can only imagine how vile that stewpot of dead animals must be. Many turkey vulture biologists have experienced this firsthand – not fun.

Vultures in a tree near Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

An emerging mortality problem of turkey vultures is when they ingest drugs that can be found in dead cattle and other livestock; specifically, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac. In some parts of Asia, vulture populations have dropped by 99 percent from feeding on livestock that were fed the drug.

How long do they live?
Their average lifespan is probably around 10 years in the wild. Some captive birds have lived to 20.

Are turkey vultures the same as buzzards?
In the U.S., the terms turkey vulture and turkey buzzard tend to be used interchangeably. But elsewhere in the world, buzzard refers to birds in the hawk family.

Fun facts:
•A group of several dozens or hundreds of turkey vultures soaring round and round up high is called a “kettle,” inspired by the motion of the birds mimicking boiling water in a pot.
•A group of turkey vultures around a carcass is called, somewhat appropriately, a “wake.”
•Turkey vultures lack a syrinx, like a voice box. Their only sounds are hisses.

If you plan to visit Boise, Idaho, stop by The World Center for Birds of Prey to see its resident turkey vulture, Lucy. Or learn more at peregrinefund.org or audubon.org.

##RVT831 ##RVDT1413

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Kelley Miller
2 months ago

We have both Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures where I live in Texas, and they often kettle together. So, trying to pick out which birds are which can be a challenge when they are up high. If you are ever in West Texas, don’t write off a high flying black bird as a vulture. It could be a Zone-tailed Hawk mixed in with the vultures.

Bob p
2 months ago

In most areas it’s unlawful to shoot them as they are the cleanup crew of nature. I knew someone who did shoot one and wounded it in the wing, he found out about the vomiting as it started vomiting and some of it hit him. He never shot at one again. No it wasn’t me!

Tommy Molnar
2 months ago

We’ve lived in our house in Carson City, NV for over 30 years. About four years ago a group of 7-8 Turkey Vultures showed up and took up temporary residence in a couple nearby trees (and power pole tops). We had to get out our bird book to find out what they were. One thing – they were HUGE! Then one day, they were gone, and haven’t been back.Pretty cool. We and the neighbors took lots of pictures, knowing this was probably a one-time visit.

Steve Tolbert
2 months ago

There’s a kettle of Turkey Vultures living across the road from me…some years the count is as low as 40, some years as high as 80 individuals. They’ve been here for years as a group. My mother, born here in1923 said they were a large flock when she was a small girl. They change roosting trees when the old trees die but stay within the same acre.

Linda Hagan
2 months ago

Very interesting. In our rural area of north Florida these vultures are always circling overhead, now I know they’re smelling for their next meal.

Steve Bayless
2 months ago

Here in Kansas we are having trouble with them attacking the eyes of new born calves.

Bill
2 months ago

Good read. I can’t wait to share this one with my wildlife-loving grandson.

Doug
2 years ago

Once again, never too old to learn something new and interesting.

Drew
2 years ago

This is a thumbs up from me too–very enlightening!

Lindsay
2 years ago

Fascinating. No knowledge before reading this, now feel a little educated. Thank you.

JC Taylor
2 years ago

Very interesting; thanks! I look forward to your future submissions.