By Cheryl Conley, Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Center
Not the prettiest of birds, but vultures serve a very important purpose. They eat the carcasses of dead animals. Driving along our roads, you may see a vulture feasting on roadkill. You may see a black vulture, turkey vulture or both. The easiest way to tell them apart is by their heads. The black vulture has a black head with a thin bill. The turkey vulture has a red head with a white bill. The wingspan of the black vulture is about 4.7 feet while the turkey vulture has a wingspan of about 5.7 feet.
Black vultures are more likely to be seen around humans. The turkey vulture is shy and tends to shy away from heavily populated areas. The turkey vulture has an acute sense of smell and uses this to locate the whereabouts of carrion. They can smell the gases coming off of a dead animal up to 5 miles away. Black vultures have to rely more on their eyesight to locate carrion but will sometimes follow turkey vultures to get their next meal.
Vultures use their hooked bills to tear their food from the carcass. Sometimes they will stick their entire head inside of a carcass so the fact that they lack feathers on their heads helps to keep them clean. They may also step inside of a contaminated carcass which can cover their feet and legs with bacteria. To kill the bacteria, they will defecate on their legs which acts as an antiseptic wash.
Vultures will often sit with their wings completely stretched out, especially in the morning. This is called the “horaltic pose”. They do this for several reasons. In the morning, it’s to help warm them since their body temperature drops at night. They also strike this pose to dry their wings or to bake off bacteria.
Here are some other interesting facts about vultures:
- There is a structure just above the bill that looks like a large nostril. It’s actually a bony structure that protects the nostrils from getting food in them.
- Vultures don’t have a voice box so they don’t make much noise other than a hiss or a grunt.
- During hot weather, vultures will urinate down their legs. This cools the blood vessels in the feet and lowers the overall temperature of the bird. It also helps kill bacteria.
- If a vulture feels threatened, it will projectile vomit.
- Both males and females incubate the eggs and help raise the young.
- Vultures have their own holiday. International Vulture Awareness Day is celebrated the first Saturday of each September.
The next time you see a vulture, remember that beauty is only skin deep. They should be appreciated for controlling bacteria in our environment. If dead animals were left to rot, bacteria that causes swine flu, botulism, leprosy and anthrax, can flourish. The bacteria can then be spread into human populations by animals and through the air.
Note: The TWRC Wildlife Center’s mission is to promote environmental conservation through public education and rehabilitation of Texas wildlife.