Earth’s Cleanser: Turkey Vulture

Have you ever bought a new car, and then everyone on the road suddenly had it too? The Turkey Vulture is my new car, so to speak.

After an enlightening visit to the Woodland Park Zoo’s raptor program a couple months ago, my husband and I realized that not every large, dark-colored bird of prey circling above us was a  “hawk” or “eagle”, general terms we’d throw out there because we had nothing else to go on. With our identification skills for raptors lacking and our binoculars far from “good”, it never occurred to us that the alien-looking Turkey Vulture we vaguely knew from childhood books and Westerns would be so prolific in the Pacific Northwest. After our revelation, we noticed those naked red heads and wobbly, V-shaped flight patterns everywhere, even more than hawks and eagles. We’ve become deeply interested in this bizarre creature; its presence is a favorite companion to our car trips and walkabouts now that we know what to look for, and suddenly I find them quite beautiful.

Donald_Lee_Pardue_flickrccIt turns out Turkey Vultures perform a necessary and life-preserving duty for most ecosystems worldwide: they eat the dead stuff. Their anatomy is designed for eating carcasses–the featherless head allows the vulture to get right inside, say, a rib cage to extract a large piece of meat or an organ. From the side, the open nostrils can be seen straight through like two holes lined up.  These nostrils allow the vulture to locate rotting flesh from miles away. The area in the Turkey Vulture’s brain that is devoted to processing smell is enlarged compared to most birds. They rely on scent to find carrion, a food source that has allowed vultures to thrive almost everywhere in the world for so long.

Jerry_Kirkhart_flickrCCWhile their consumption of dead flesh can be unsettling, many cultures worldwide believe vultures are sacred animals for their role as cleansers. Tibetan Buddhists traditionally performed “sky burials”, offering their dead to the vultures and other animals. Tibetans weren’t the only ones–others such as the Zoroastrians believed that the vultures released the soul from the body.

Quick Facts

-Conservation status: LC (least concern)
-Nesting habitat: cliffs
-Preferred residential habitat: open woodlands, also in farmlands and near roadsides (likely due to the abundance of roadkill)
-Geographical location: resides everywhere in the world except Antarctica because of their essential role for clean-up
-Etymology of “vulture”: likely from the Latin vellere, to pluck or tear.
-Etymology of scientific name Cathartes aura, Latin for “cleansing breeze”

Photo credit: Ingrid Taylar / Donald Lee Pardue / Jerry Kirkhart

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