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.
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.
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.
•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.