When I was a young girl, many, many years ago, my Mom and I often picked wild strawberries as a special summer treat for that night’s dessert. On one occasion, as I bent down to loosen a cluster of sweet tiny red berries from their stemsout of the corner of my eye something caught my attention. I looked beyond our neighbor’s house, and into the sky over’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 sky over the hill.
“What IS that, Mom?” My mother stopped picking berries and stood upright, shading her eyes from the bright sunlight. “Oh”, she said with a positive note,”that’s a turkey vulture riding a thermal.”
The truth about turkey vultures:
Gentle, affectionate and devoted parents
Don’t spread any diseases whatsoever, contrary to popular beliefs
Essential part of Nature’s cleanup crew
Perform removal of carcasses before they can become diseased
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 hot 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 are based on images conjured up by Hollywood Westerns.
The black vultures most often seen from the west and south throughout Mexico are indeed competitive. They circle on high looking for their next meal, and squabble over their finds like selfish children.
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 game distinctive two-toned wings which are dark brown, with silvery grey feathers on their wing edges.
Turkey vulture heads are small and featherless for a very good reason. Think about it–much like workmen dress for the job, these birds do the opposite. They undress (their heads) for the job at hand. If their noggins had feathers, they would find all gummed up when they dove into carcasses. It is not pretty, but it is true. Vultures would be spending far too much of their time preening and cleaning rather than filling their bellies. The smaller head size allows them to get into all the nooks and crannies where the meat is. In the bird world, efficacy most often translates to survival.
When the young hatch from their excellently camouflaged eggs, they are powerless to defend or feed themselves. Their parents are aware for potential predatory attacks, and they’re adept at providing plenty of food for their downy chicks to another 60 to 80 days.
In some cultures they’re revered as cleansers and sprays. Buddhists think they have the ability to release the soul and take it to Heaven. So it is a routine practice to provide their deceased to vultures for’cleansing’ and delivery to the firmament, also called’sky burials’.
Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, really translates to ‘purifying breeze’ or’golden purifier’. Both of those interpretations is more precise than the term’vulture’, which means to rip.
Turkey Vultures are gentle creatures, despite their ghoulish reputations. They’ll take turns, rather than fight over bits and pieces of flesh. Other birds, like the black vultures and hawks, find it easy to drive them away out of their own finds.
Having excellent immune systems prevents 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 by their food sources.
If they feel afraid or threatened they regurgitate (frequently in the direction of the perceived threat). This offensive act repels, and takes their attacker by surprise, with the sight and awful odor. Plus, it serves to lighten the load for a faster get away!
The unfounded fears that turkey vultures spread disease frequently prompts intentional shootings and unkind poisonings and trappings. However, these birds keep the environment clean and disease free, rather than the reverse.
As humans, I think we sometimes tend to equate beauty with goodness, and ugliness with evil. All living things have a role on this Earth. The misunderstood and much maligned Turkey Vulture serves a noble goal. We need to look past the superficial idea of attractiveness, and provide the Turkey Vulture that the reverence it has rightfully earned and deserves.