When I was a young girl, many, many years ago, my Mom and I often picked wild strawberries as a special summertime treat for that night’s dessert. On one occasion, as I bent down to loosen a bunch of sweet little red berries from their stalks, out of the corner of my eye something caught my attention. I looked beyond our neighbor’s house, and into the skies above’Sugar Hill’, where I had enjoyed watching so many awesomely beautiful sunsets. A large dark bird with an impressive wingspan was moving silently and slowly, circling in the skies over the hill.
“What IS that, Mom?” My mom stopped picking berries and stood upright, shading her eyes from the bright sun. “Oh”, she said with a positive note,”that is a turkey vulture riding a thermal.”
The truth about turkey vultures:
Gentle, caring and devoted parents
Do not spread any diseases at all, contrary to popular beliefs
Essential part of Nature’s cleanup crew
Perform removal of carcasses before they can become diseased
Purify environment by removing animal cadavers that are already infected
Considered sacred in some cultures for their gift of sanitizing
Enjoy soaring on high using warm thermals to lift them ever upward
Resemble wild turkeys with their reddish featherless head, dark body and two-tone wings
When you think of vultures, what images come to mind? Lazy, dirty, aggressive, morbid harbingers of death? While those are understandable responses, I fear they’re based on pictures conjured up by Hollywood Westerns.
The black vultures most often seen from the west and south throughout Mexico are indeed competitive. They circle on high searching for their next meal, and squabble over their finds like selfish children.
Common all over america, it’s the turkey vulture which uses its highly developed ability to detect the stench of cadavers, even at great distances. These large eagle-sized birds game distinctive two-toned wings that are dark brown, with silvery grey feathers on their wing edges.
Turkey vulture heads are small and featherless for an excellent reason. Think about it–similar to workmen dress for the job, these birds do exactly the opposite. They undress (their heads) to the task at hand. If their noggins had feathers, they would get all gummed up when they dove into carcasses. It is not pretty, but it’s true. Vultures would be spending far too much of their time preening and cleaning rather than filling their bellies. The smaller head size enables them to get into all the nooks and crannies where the meat is. In the bird world, efficacy most often translates into survival.
When the young hatch from their excellently camouflaged eggs, they are powerless to defend or feed themselves. Their parents are ever watchful for potential predatory attacks, and they are adept at providing loads of food for their downy chicks for another 60 to 80 days.
In some cultures they are revered as cleansers and sprays. Buddhists believe they have the ability to release the soul and take it to Heaven. So it is a routine practice to offer their deceased to vultures for’cleansing’ and delivery into the firmament, also known as’sky burials’.
Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, really translates to either’purifying breeze’ or’gold purifier’. Both of the interpretations is more precise than the word’vulture’, which means to tear.
They’ll take turns, rather than fight over bits and pieces of flesh. Other birds, like the smaller black vultures and hawks, find it easy to push them away from their own finds.
Having excellent immune systems prevents them from contracting any nasty diseases from the dead creatures they ingest. When roosting on the floor or atop a dead tree stump, they spread their wings outward with their backs to the sun to help rid them of parasites contracted from their food sources.
If they feel afraid or threatened they regurgitate (frequently in the direction of the perceived threat). This offensive action repels, and takes their attacker by surprise, with the sight and awful odor. Plus, it serves to lighten the load for a quicker get away!
The unfounded fears that turkey vultures spread disease frequently prompts intentional shootings and unkind poisonings and calling Titusville Raccoon Removal for trappings. But these birds keep the surroundings clean and disease free, rather than the reverse.
As humans, I think we sometimes tend to equate beauty with goodness, and ugliness with evil. The misunderstood and much maligned Turkey Vulture serves a noble goal. We need to look past the superficial idea of attractiveness, and give the Turkey Vulture that the reverence it’s rightfully earned and deserves.