Vultures: Creepy, Gross, and Vitally Important
Texas’ Highland Lakes region is big sky country, open land with not very many humans, starry skies and tons of outdoor recreation. I stayed a few nights at the Canyon of the Eagles in July. It’s a relaxing resort with white rocking chairs and views of Lake Buchanan. But I quickly found out summer was the wrong season for eagles. I had landed in the Canyon of the Vultures.
Now vultures are nothing new to most people. Between New World vultures and Old World vultures, they inhabit every continent except Antarctica. Since critters die everywhere, vultures have plenty of leeway in where they hang their hats. But somehow I’d never thought much about them until visiting Burnet County.
In Burnet County, 54 miles northwest of Austin, the deer hunting season is short. Therefore, the deer are many. This means odds are higher than they are most places that a motorist will hit a deer. And that is A-OK with the vultures of Burnet County, who cruise in circles above every road, waiting for lunch, teatime and elevenses. Unfortunately for everybody, vultures get so intent on eating roadkill that motorists also have higher than normal odds of hitting a vulture.
Unlike sea otters, monk seals and red pandas, the 16 at-risk vulture species have few fans clamoring to save them. They’ve been reviled for centuries. Even Charles Darwin, who you’d think would respect every important member of an ecosystem, called turkey vultures disgusting and described their heads as “formed to wallow in putridity.” Vultures’ garbage-picking ways clean up our natural environment and cut down on the spread of disease.
Meanwhile, American Indians collect eagle feathers for rituals, sports teams name themselves after that giant bird of prey and America adopts the bald eagle as its national bird. In Burnet County, I take the beautiful 22-mile Vanishing Texas River Cruise on a boat called –what else– the Texas Eagle. One woman I met in Burnet County told me that people often called vultures “Mexican eagles.” I couldn’t suss out if that was supposed to be polite to vultures or rude to Mexicans.
As I watched black vultures and turkey vultures flying over our boat, I pondered vultures’ image problem. People think vultures are gross while eagles are majestic. But vultures are more peaceful than eagles, eating what’s already dead rather than killing it. Most people are more like vultures, eating dead food, albeit packaged and store-bought, rather than killing. Yet people would rather identify with eagles, who are a dignified national emblem, and not routinely seen with their heads buried in carcasses.
I was traveling with a small group of people I didn’t know very well. My burgeoning interest in vultures outweighed theirs, to put it mildly. When we drove past a dozen black vultures with their heads buried in a deer, my fellow passengers looked away while I yearned to stop.
Fortunately for me, I met a couple of naturalists in Texas who filled me in on vulture fun facts. Tim Mohan, a tour guide on the Vanishing Texas River Cruise, told me that vulture DNA is closer to stork or flamingo than other birds of prey. Turkey vultures are the rare vulture that hunt by sense of smell. Black vultures hunt by sight. They can see for three miles, while eagles can only see two. Which indicates the expression should be “vulture-eyed,” not “eagle-eyed.” “They’re great garbage cans,” Mohan said admiringly.
Jasmine Scott, an interpretive ranger at Inks Lake State Park, had grosser vulture trivia. After leading my group on a kayak tour of the lake, we relaxed outside the gift shop. Birds don’t sweat, she said, so they open their beaks like dogs open their mouths to get their temperatures down, or stand on one leg to limit the amount of heat absorbed from the ground. But black and turkey vultures have another trick up their feathered sleeves. “Both species of vulture will poop on their legs to help thermoregulate,” she said.
Vultures are known for their distinctive bald, cranky old man look. “They don’t have feathers on their face or neck,” Scott said, because of “all that yuck they’re getting their face into.”
When vultures are scared, they induce vomiting as a defense mechanism. This also helps lighten their load so they can quickly fly away. Now this may sound gross enough, but two factors notch up this tactic: their diet of rotting meat and their extremely acidic stomach acid. Scott once saw a vulture launch vomit at a dog. “It was this awesome green color,” she said. “They’re scary accurate at spitting that at dogs or people.” Vulture vomit is acidic enough to sting flesh on contact. However, bald eagles sometimes eat vulture barf. Who’s the gross bird now?
Source: BBC News
Relaxing into our mortality
Around the world, vulture populations have decreased due to intentional poisoning, accidental lead poisoning from spent ammunition in scavenged carcasses, DDT contamination, lack of large enough trees for nesting, highway mortality and being shot or caught in walk-in traps. Indian vultures died from kidney failure after feasting on dead cows treated with a drug called diclofenac, leaving them critically endangered. Obviously, vultures should be afraid of us, not the other way around.
I think vultures make people uneasy because they’re as comfortable with death as we are uncomfortable with it. Vultures remind people of our own mortality. Scott remembered a sunset kayak tour last year. “The clouds rolled in quickly,” she said. “It got darker than we anticipated. All the vultures went way up into the sky all together. It was ominous. Everybody was saying, ‘What’s about to happen?’ Everybody was freaking out.”
Scott told everybody to relax, that the vultures were just using the warm air to cruise on. “When they’re circling, that’s equivalent to laying on the couch watching Netflix,” she said.
See? They’re not really so different from us.