When I was a young girl, many, many years ago, my Mom and I frequently picked wild strawberries as a special summertime treat for that night’s dessert. On one occasion, as I bent down to loosen a bunch of sweet tiny red berries from their stems, out of the corner of my eye something grabbed my attention. I looked past our neighbor’s house, and into the skies above’Sugar Hill’, where I had enjoyed watching a lot of awesomely beautiful sunsets. A large dark bird with an impressive wingspan was moving quietly and slowly, circling in the skies over the hill.
“What IS that, Mom?” My mother stopped picking berries and stood upright, shading her eyes from the bright sun. “Oh”, she said with a positive note,”that’s a turkey vulture riding a thermal.”
The truth about turkey vultures:
Gentle, caring and devoted parents
Do not spread any diseases at all, contrary to popular beliefs
Essential part of Nature’s cleanup crew
Purify environment by eliminating animal cadavers that are already infected
Considered sacred in certain cultures for their gift of sanitizing
Enjoy soaring on high with warm thermals to lift them ever upward
Resemble wild turkeys with their red featherless head, dark body and two-tone wings
When you think of vultures, what images come to mind? While those are clear responses, I fear they’re based on images conjured up by Hollywood Westerns.
The black vultures most often seen from the west and south throughout Mexico are really aggressive.
Common all over america, it is the turkey vulture which uses its highly developed ability to detect the stench of cadavers, even at great distances. These large eagle-sized birds sport distinctive two-toned wings that are dark brown, with silvery grey feathers on their wing borders.
Turkey vulture heads are small and featherless for a very good reason. Consider it–similar to workmen dress for the job, these birds do the opposite. They undress (their heads) for the task at hand. If their noggins had feathers, they would find all gummed up when they dove into carcasses. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. Vultures would be spending far too much of their time preening and cleaning instead of filling their bellies. In the bird world, efficiency most often translates into survival.
When the young hatch from their excellently camouflaged eggs, they are powerless to defend or feed themselves. Their parents are ever watchful for possible predatory attacks, and they’re adept at providing loads of food for their downy chicks for another 60 to 80 days.
Vultures are an elegant part of Nature’s cleanup crew. In some cultures they are revered as purifiers and cleansers. Buddhists think they have the ability to release the soul and take it to Heaven. So it’s a routine practice to offer their deceased to vultures for’cleansing’ and delivery to the firmament, also called’sky burials’.
Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, really translates to either’purifying breeze’ or’golden purifier’. Either of those interpretations is more precise than the term’vulture’, which means to rip.
They’ll take turns, as opposed to fight over bits and pieces of flesh. Other birds, such as the black vultures and hawks, find it easy to drive them away from their own finds.
Possessing excellent immune systems keeps them from contracting any nasty diseases from the dead creatures they ingest. When roosting on the ground or atop a dead tree stump, they spread their wings outward with their backs to the sun to help rid them of parasites contracted from their food sources.
If they feel afraid or threatened they regurgitate (frequently at the direction of the perceived threat). This offensive act repels, and takes their attacker by surprise, with the sight and odor that is horrible. Plus, it serves to lighten the load for a faster get away!
The unfounded fears that turkey vultures spread disease often prompts intentional shootings and unkind poisonings and trappings. But these birds keep the environment clean and disease free, as opposed to the reverse.
All living things have a role on this Earth. The much maligned Turkey Vulture serves a noble goal. We will need to look beyond the shallow idea of attractiveness, and give the Turkey Vulture that the reverence it has rightfully earned and deserves.