Each year, the Wildlife Center cares for about two dozen vultures. They aren’t “cute and cuddly” like some of the small mammals that we care for, nor do they tend to be the “headliner” patients like Bald Eagles or Black Bears. But, vultures are a vital part of nature’s clean-up crew and they play a crucial role in the balance of nature. Here are some vulture facts:
- Black and Turkey Vultures are scavengers and feed primarily on carrion. Vultures are part of nature’s clean-up crew. They rid the landscape of deteriorating carcasses and help curb the spread of dangerous diseases and bacteria. Their stomachs have strong enzymes that kill off dangerous toxins and microorganisms.
- Vultures lack the powerful feet that are characteristic of other raptors like eagles and hawks. They have long toes with blunted talons, which are easier for walking. Turkey Vultures will often place one or both feet on their food when eating; Black Vultures typically do not use their feet when feeding.
- Vultures have long, hooked bills that are designed for tearing pieces of food. Vultures lack feathers on their heads so that they can more easily keep themselves clean when eating. Vultures will often insert their head completely inside the carcass they are cleaning up.
The legs of vultures are usually coated white, due to the dried uric acid of their excrement. Vultures will mute – excrete waste – onto their legs, serving two different purposes:
- In warm weather, muting on their legs serves as part of their thermoregulation – it helps to cool down their body temperature.
- When vultures step into a carcass, touching possibly contaminated flesh, they risk tracking bacteria around on their legs. The vultures will excrete onto their legs, and the highly acidic uric acids kill off bacteria and toxins that may be on the bird’s legs.
- In the early mornings, vultures often will sit with their wings spread wide, increasing the surface area of their bodies so that the sun can more easily warm them. This is called the “horaltic pose”.
- Black Vultures are “family-oriented” birds – they feed their young for up to eight months after their young have fledged and often stay together in family groups.
- Vultures lack a voice box; their vocalizations include rasping hisses and grunts.
- According to All About Birds, "The word 'vulture' likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. [The Turkey Vulture's] scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either 'golden purifier' or 'purifying breeze'."
- Vultures can live to be 25 years old.
Black vs. Turkey Vultures
- Black Vultures have black plumage, bare black heads, and white patches under their primary feathers.
- Mature Turkey Vultures have dark plumage and featherless red heads; the undersides of the flight feathers are paler. An immature Turkey Vulture’s head is dark gray.
- When trying to identify a Black Vulture from a Turkey Vulture while on the wing (in flight), one may do so by looking at the underside of the bird’s wings. A Turkey Vulture’s wings will be largely silvery-white underneath, while the Black Vulture only has small patches of white at the tip.
- Unlike most bird species, Turkey Vultures rely on their sense of smell to find prey. Black Vultures rely on sight.
- Vultures were once regarded as largely beneficial and were well-tolerated in human-populated areas. A negative attitude toward these scavengers was developed in the early 1900s when people became concerned that vultures might increase the spread of disease, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
- Each year, the Center admits more than two dozen vultures. Common causes of injury include gunshot, auto collisions, and lead poisoning. You can help vultures by sharing your appreciation of these misunderstood scavengers with other people. Learn more about lead poisoning here and help us reduce the number of vultures (and eagles!) we see suffering from the effects of lead toxicity.