They may not be as majestic (or attractive) as eagles, but these
carcass-consuming birds provide a valuable service
By Bill Newcott | Photograph by Brett Breeding
From the Holiday 2018 issue
What I wanted to see was an eagle.
In the months after I moved to Lewes from Washington, D.C., all I heard about from my new hiking, biking and kayaking friends was that glorious moment when the blue sky is split by the sweeping lines of an American bald eagle. From the heavens it swoops, skimming the water, snagging a wriggling fish and zooming skyward again, like a stealth fighter doing touch-and-goes.
Alas, such a spectacle has eluded me. My first close encounter was decidedly unsatisfactory, along Route 50 one afternoon, where on the shoulder an eagle was pecking frantically at a flattened possum. We made brief eye contact. Frankly, I think we were both embarrassed.
Then one morning I stepped out my front door and was startled by the shadow of a great bird flitting across my lawn. I looked up, shielding the sun with my hand, and released an exultant gasp at the sight of the magnificent creature, silhouetted against the sky. Lazily it followed an arc to the north, then circled back.
“What a majestic creation,” I whispered to myself as it descended toward me.
“Hmm. It looks like it’s missing some wing feathers …
“Wait … why is its head all red?
“My God — WHAT IS THAT HIDEOUS THING???”
With that, a turkey vulture, as far removed from an American bald eagle as a cockroach is from a monarch butterfly, plopped itself down on the street. The thing took a few awkward hops, then used its gnarly beak to flip the carcass of a toad that had apparently failed to elude my tires as I pulled into the driveway the previous night.
The bird’s distracted disassembly of the unfortunate toad gave me a chance to get a good look at him (or her; I’m no ornithologist). Its feathers, so striking when seen from below, seemed tattered and worn, like the boa on a down-on-her-luck Copa girl. Its ungainly feet supported a pair of fat legs that resembled Big Bird’s, only instead of plush and orange they were raw and red. And that head: A red E.T.-like noggin with scraggly hair-like feathers; dark eyes ringed by fleshy, blood-red concentric circles; and a beak, seemingly stuck on with Krazy Glue, that curls into a nasty hook perfectly contoured for easy removal of intestines and eyeballs.
Of course, turkey vultures may seem disgusting and repulsive when you first see them, but the more you get to know about turkey vultures … the more disgusting and repulsive they become. They keep their legs cool by peeing and pooping on them. Their nostrils aren’t separated by a septum, so when you see a turkey vulture in profile, you can look right through its beak. When threatened, these birds defend themselves by vomiting partially digested meat, which smells so awful their attackers run off, presumably looking for a bucket to puke in. Turkey vultures can also spew stinging, blinding vomit into their attacker’s eyes, just like that dinosaur did to poor Newman in “Jurassic Park.”
Why, you may ask, can’t turkey vultures be more like their genteel winter companions, snow geese? I mean, just look at those strikingly graceful birds: laying feathery blankets on coastal Delaware farm fields, rising in glorious clouds of white, their voices a chorus of avian music. Turkey vultures can’t even sing. They mostly hiss. Sometimes they grunt.
The world could use more snow geese and fewer turkey vultures. Right? Uh, no. Not right. In fact, if not for those turkey vultures patrolling on high, keeping an eye out for dead and dying critters to consume, you and I would be up to our gizzards in dead deer, rancid raccoons, and putrefying possums.
That’s what I learned when I caught up with Jacque Williamson, who’s not only curator of education at Wilmington’s Brandywine Zoo, but also one of the world’s top experts on vultures. She was on maternity leave, but her boss gave me her cellphone number because, as he put it, “she is always eager to talk vultures.”
He’s not wrong about that. Williamson doesn’t just like vultures; she lives and breathes vultures, and immediately jumped to their defense.
“They’re amazing!” Williamson insisted. “I have a pretty strong passion for vultures.”
Mostly, she said, vultures suffer from terrible PR: “Vultures have a bad reputation. They’re called the undertakers of the dead. They’re associated with death and disease.”
That makes sense, since just about the only time we see vultures on the ground is when they’ve got their ugly little heads buried in some unfortunate animal’s abdominal cavity.
A vulture can smell a rotting corpse from 10 miles away, Williamson said, and as it homes in on that tasty treat, other vultures take note and follow. It’s a good thing, because if we depended on guys in trucks to carry off all the carcasses vultures eat, the cost would climb into the millions of dollars each year. In fact, Williams calculates, each and every vulture performs the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars in disposal services.
“It’s incredible,” she enthused. “A wake of vultures can devour an entire large animal in a matter of minutes!”
Wait a minute. A wake of vultures?
“Yes!” she said excitedly. “Vultures have the best collective nouns! A group of vultures roosting in a tree is called a committee. When you see them flying in a circle overhead, that’s a kettle of vultures. And when they gather around a carcass, that’s a wake.”
But it would be our funeral if vultures flew the coop, she added. Because vultures have battery acid-like chemicals in their stomachs, their guts destroy the things that might have killed an animal in the first place, like the rabies virus or anthrax bacteria. On the other hand, a fox that takes a bite of a rabies-carrying carcass can catch the disease and spread it.
Still prefer a field covered in snow geese? You should know that your average snow goose is an eating and pooping machine, devouring vegetation — often the young stems of a farmer’s spring crop — up to seven hours a day and defecating up to 15 times an hour. And there are more than a million of those guys, eating and pooping like there’s no tomorrow.
No wonder hunters are encouraged to shoot up to 25 a day … while bagging a single vulture can get you a six-month jail sentence.
Just try explaining that to the guys in the prison yard.
* * *