Vultures Defend Against Decay

IF YOU WANT to find an animal that performs a highly beneficial service for us humans and gets hardly any credit for it, look no further than the lowly vulture. Or, “buzzard,” as most people call them.

Actually, that name is something of a misnomer, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, here are few facts about the vulture:

The type of vulture most common is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), although the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) also is seen occasionally. The Turkey Vulture is so named because of its featherless, reddish head and dark body, which somewhat resembles a turkey.

The reason many people have a less-than-stellar opinion of these birds is because of what they eat: carrion, or, as most of us say, “dead stuff.” Although this may not seem like a glamorous diet, it’s a very valuable one. Vultures occasionally eat mice, rats, young birds or other live prey, but the majority of their diet is carrion.

Because of the vultures’ dietary habits, dead animals are cleaned up a lot quicker than they would if the carcasses underwent the normal processes of decay. Because of the vultures’ feeding habits, that means that the bacteria, vermin and all the other things associated with dead rotting carcasses also disappear much faster than they would in a “vulture-less” environment.

If you can get past what they eat, vultures have several impressive traits. They have a more highly developed sense of smell than most birds, which stands to reason since they use smell to find their meals. Their featherless heads, while they may look ugly, serve a valuable purpose. A featherless head is harder for bacteria and vermin to attach to— definitely advantageous to a creature who spends much of its time poking its head into dead carcasses.

One of a vulture’s frequently used defense mechanisms is to throw up. This accomplishes two things: It lightens its personal load and makes it easier to fly away and, at the same time, momentarily stuns, confuses or disgusts its potential predator.

Vultures found in North America are in a different bird family than “Old World” vultures. Vultures found in the Western Hemisphere—”New World” vultures — are closely related to storks; “Old World” vultures have closer ties to eagles. That the two groups of birds are somewhat similar in appearance is a classic example of convergent evolution, which occurs when animals with similar habitat needs evolve into similar-looking creatures.

The “buzzard” name that we have tagged onto these birds is due to a mistake of our forefathers: “Buzzard” was a term Europeans used to describe hawks. When the first explorers got here and saw these large birds soaring in the skies above them, it was a natural—though mistaken—move to name them “buzzards” as well.–Missouri Department of Conservation