This is a Cinderella story, but not in the way that you think.
While many gorgeous song birds are headed south to their winter homes, vultures hang around to impress us with their own brand of beauty.
Luckily for us, turkey and black vultures are only partial migrants. Hawk Mountain, a major migration point in Pennsylvania, only sees two hundred migrating turkey vultures each year and even fewer black vultures.
How do you tell these two apart? Turkey vultures are so named for their wrinkly red heads similar to what turkeys have. They have dark brown (not black), bodies with two toned underwings.
On the other hand, Black vultures have grey heads and mostly black bodies with very distinctive white wingtips.
While they may not be on the celebrity “A List” for good looks (only their mothers could love them for their homely, downright ugly appearance), they make up for it tenfold in other departments.
Now let’s just imagine for a bit what it would be like if vultures were not around to clean up our roads day after day. By that I mean the millions of animals that become asphalt hockey pucks every year when they collide with cars.
Both turkey and black vultures do us a huge favor with their incredible scavenging skills in gobbling up these critters. In fact, carrion, a fancy word for dead stuff, makes up most of their diet (you can throw in a bit of human garbage, too, and on rare occasions live prey).
Unfortunately, their unseemly feeding habits also give them an undeservedly bad reputation.
I’ll admit I am guilty of some unkind thoughts about these amazing creatures. Years ago, we hosted a family of black vultures in the yard. The kids (I called them the twins), liked to hang out in an old pine tree above the dog kennels.
The dogs wanted no parts of them and barked their silly heads off to shoo them away.
That didn’t work out too well since they didn’t move very far. The house chimneys became their favorite roosting spot. Each one had its own chimney where they spent several weeks sunning themselves and surveying their territory. This seriously creeped me out.
Edgar Allan Poe stories immediately came to mind (yes, I know, it was a raven, not a vulture, but they’re both big and black).
The ancient Mayan culture was a bit more kind to them. Though they considered them consumers of death, they also felt that they transformed death to life with the ability to cleanse and renew. In modern day terms, I would call that recycling and they are masters at it.
So now the question becomes how do they do it?
Very few birds can smell, but turkey vultures are an exception. In fact, they have some of the best smell capabilities in the bird world. If you ever have a chance to get a closeup look at their schnozzes, they’re huge and remind me of Jimmy Durante.
They can smell food over a mile away.
Their vision isn’t too shabby either. This combination makes them excellent scavengers, even in woods.
On the other hand, black vultures have very little sense of smell but equally good vision. They often cue in on their turkey vulture cousins’ movements and follow them to find food, frequently muscling them out of meals.
Speaking of meals, vultures prefer them fresh as in just recently departed. They also prefer herbivores, like squirrels and deer, over carnivores like dogs and foxes.
How they digest their food is another amazing adaptation. The potent acids and enzymes in their stomachs allow them to eat whatever they want and not worry about bad bacteria or any other nasty stuff (like rabies, distemper, and anthrax).
In fact, the bacteria they consume also helps them break down their meals. Now there’s a lesson in efficiency!
On top of that, these guys are bald, and for good reason. While tidying up the environment for all of us, they naturally come in contact with undesirable things. Having featherless heads allows them to dive in without the concern of messing up their feathers.
In addition, new research reveals that it is also a way for them to regulate heat. In other words, a bald head in summer is also a cooler head.
Did you know that vultures cannot carry off their prized meals? In fact, they are pretty much flatfooted. Their feet are surprisingly big though and remind me of the preposterous shoes that clowns wear. Those big feet also allow them to walk.
As a member of the raptor family which includes eagles, hawks and ospreys, this is a unique adaptation and one that occasionally gets them into trouble with fast moving cars.
It’s in the air though where they become the bodacious Cinderellas of soaring. I am hard pressed to think of many other birds who soar with the grace and beauty of vultures.
Turkey vultures in particular hardly beat their wings as they ride on updrafts called thermals for as much as six hours at a time. Their teeter totter “V” shape wing flights distinguish them from the black vultures, who hold their wings in a straight line and flap a lot more.
Turkey vultures are so good at soaring that pilots have reported seeing them at dizzying heights of 20,000 feet.
Years ago, a park manager friend of mine told me that if he was ever reincarnated as a bird, he would come back as a vulture.
I thought he was crazy, but now I understand why. Soaring into the heavens like vultures do would be quite a heady experience.
The next time you see a vulture, don’t look askance.
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Instead, see them with the admiration and respect they deserve as the top-flight sanitation engineers and sky ballet artists that they truly are.