When I was a young girl, many, many years back, my Mother and I frequently picked wild strawberries as a special summertime treat for this night’s dessert. On one occasion, as I bent down to loosen a bunch of sweet little red berries from their stems, out of the corner of my eye something grabbed my attention. I looked beyond our neighbor’s house, and into the skies above’Sugar Hill’, where I had enjoyed watching so many awesomely beautiful sunsets. A large dark bird with an impressive wingspan was moving silently and slowly, circling in the skies over the hill.
“What IS that, Mom?”
The truth about turkey vultures:
Gentle, caring and dedicated parents
Do not spread any diseases at all, contrary to popular beliefs
Essential part of Nature’s cleanup crew
Perform removal of carcasses before they can become diseased
Purify environment by removing 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 reddish featherless head, dark body and two-tone wings
When you think of vultures, what images come to mind? Lazy, dirty, aggressive, morbid harbingers of death? While those are understandable responses, I fear they are based on images conjured up by Hollywood Westerns.
The black vultures most often seen in the west and south throughout Mexico are indeed competitive. They circle on high searching 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 that are dark brown, with silvery gray feathers on their wing edges.
Turkey vulture heads are small and featherless for an excellent reason. Consider it–much like workmen dress for the job, these birds do the contrary. They undress (their heads) to the task at hand. It’s not pretty, but it is true. Vultures would be spending far too much of their time preening and cleaning rather than filling their bellies. In the bird world, efficacy most often translates to survival.
When the young hatch out of their camouflaged eggs, they are helpless to defend or feed themselves. Their parents are aware for potential predatory attacks, and they are 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’re revered as cleansers and sprays. Buddhists believe they have the capability to release the soul and take it to Heaven. So it is a routine practice to provide their dead to vultures for’cleansing’ and delivery to the firmament, also called’sky burials’.
Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, really translates to ‘purifying breeze’ or’gold purifier’. Either of those interpretations is more accurate than the term’vulture’, which means to tear.
They’ll take turns, as opposed to fight over bits and pieces of flesh. Other birds, such as the smaller black vultures and hawks, find it easy to push them away from their own finds.
Possessing excellent immune systems prevents them from contracting any nasty diseases from the dead animals they ingest.
If they feel afraid or threatened they regurgitate (often at the direction of the perceived threat). This offensive act repels, and takes their attacker by surprise, with the sight and awful odor. Additionally, it serves to lighten the load for a quicker get away!
The unfounded fears that turkey vultures spread disease often 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 purpose. We need to look beyond the shallow idea of beauty, and provide the Turkey Vulture the reverence it has rightfully earned and deserves.