There’s no better time than Halloween time to throw a bone to the unappreciated vulture. Few birds are less loved than vultures. We use songbirds to symbolize springtime and romance, and we’ve assigned doves to represent the peace and tranquility of marriage. The majestic eagle soars and scowls, representing our democracy and heritage, perching proud and golden atop our flagpoles. But the vulture? The vultures are always portrayed lurking and skulking, hunching on tombstones and peering balefully from the blackened branches of dead trees. Very, very few of us look on the bald-headed, hunch-backed buzzard with love. This Halloween, let’s try to change that.
There are two species of vulture to be found here at Safari West. One you are practically guaranteed to see and another you almost certainly won’t. These are the turkey vulture and the hooded vulture. One is local to Sonoma County and the other hails from far Africa. They’re both scavengers, feeding on the dead. They both rely on sharp beaks and strong stomach acids to survive. They seem like they’d be cousins but as it turns out, they’re not. Their similarity in form and function is the result of what we call convergent evolution. Although they’re not actually related, they live similar lifestyles and so have evolved strikingly similar traits.
Let’s start with the former. The turkey vulture is our local vulture here in northern California. While they occasionally share airspace with the California condor, condors are vanishingly rare while thankfully, the turkey vulture is not. If you’ve ever been driving down the road and seen a large, ominous looking black bird on a telephone pole glaring down with wings outspread, that was a turkey vulture. If you’ve looked up at a column of slowly rising black spots, soaring unsteadily in summer updrafts, those are turkey vultures. They’re not classically attractive birds with their black plumage and bald heads. They’re frequently missing a few flight feathers, lending their appearance a raggedy air. They’re often spotted lumbering into unsteady flight as your car approaches a recently squished squirrel, skunk, or raccoon on the roadside. Bare red skulls and sooty black plumage; these are our beautiful turkey vultures.
We have turkey vultures all over Safari West for good reason. Our wildlife preserve is located in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains which means that as the sun hits our slopes each morning, it generates thermal updrafts; rising columns of heated air. The vultures, refreshed from a night’s sleep use those thermals like elevators, riding the currents of air to tremendous heights. If you’re ever on the property between nine and eleven in the morning, look up and you’ll see them drifting overhead.
The amazing thing about turkey vultures (and indeed all vultures found in the Americas) is that they actually smell for food from that altitude. Unlike the vulture species found elsewhere in the world, new-world vultures depend more on scent than sight when it comes to finding a delicious corpse. Even at high altitudes, the scent of corruption and decay is detectable to them and, like an airborne bloodhound; they can track the scent to its source.
The other species of vulture to be found at Safari West is the hooded vulture. Hooded vultures are native to sub-Saharan Africa. Ours are quite shy and aren’t on display so don’t expect to see them during a visit here. The reason we have them here is that the hooded vulture is a critically endangered species and we are a conservation breeding facility. Like vultures the world over, hooded vultures are experiencing a shocking decline in population. As of 2009, they were considered a species of least concern. Fast forward less than a decade and they are at the most extreme level of endangerment. What happened?
Hooded vultures are part of the family we call Old-World vultures; vulture species found in Europe, Africa, and Asia. One trait shared by old-world vultures is absolutely incredible eyesight. Like our local turkey vultures, the hooded vultures float aloft on thermals and then cruise around in search of a recently deceased meal. Unlike the turkey vultures, they’re not sniffing for bodies but scanning for the distinct shape of something deliciously dead. When they spot a body, or just as often, another vulture descending with purpose, they drop down to feast.
The naked head and hooked beak of the vulture species is perfect for prying apart dead flesh. Their beak is a fantastic tool and the nude head and neck keep mess to a minimum. Hooded vultures tend to wait for the bigger vulture species to eat and leave before they take over a corpse. They’re among the smaller of vulture species, and weaker as well, so they benefit from the rending and tearing done by their larger cousins. Their smaller size also makes it easier for them to get the juicy bits left in crevices.
There are several problems faced by vultures in Africa. One is that they are hunted for food as well as for body parts used in traditional medicine. There’s also some evidence that poachers will kill vultures so the circling birds don’t give away the location of an illegally killed elephant, rhino, or lion. Some of the more pressing and widespread concerns, however, have to do with habitat loss and poisoning. Habitat loss is a fairly standard culprit when looking at endangered species, but poisoning is something else entirely.
What typically happens is that a rancher will poison the corpse of one of their flock or herd with the hope that that poison will be consumed by the painted dog, cheetah, leopard, or lion who’s been preying on their animals. This is discouraged in the first place because of the endangered status of all of those primary predators but is further problematic because any corpse will draw vultures from miles, sometimes hundreds of miles around. While this kind of poisoning will occasionally rid a shepherd of a bothersome leopard, it also decimates the local scavenger population.
When the scavengers aren’t there to clean up the dead, microbes take over the work instead. Microbes can cause diseases to spread among other local species, including us. We may not instinctively love vultures but we certainly should. Their super senses serve to keep huge areas of terrain free of rotting corpses. Their stomach acids are so strong that they’ll wolf down rancid meat riddled with the pathogens that cause anthrax, botulism, and rabies without batting an eye. This incredible cleaning capacity means that vultures play a key role in reducing disease vectors. The next time you see a black colored V soaring over your home, take a moment to thank it for the work it’s doing. This would be a much grosser place without them.