Thursday, October 11, 2007

More than you ever wanted to know about turkey vultures

I realized today that I haven't done a species profile of Lynne's fav...the turkey vulture.

(The TV in this post is none other than the incomparable Earl.)
Lynne, this one's for you.

Big ol earl and me

Most people think of vultures as harbingers of death, the large, black soaring birds in the cartoons waiting for someone who is crawling through the desert to kick the bucket.
While they may be able to detect chemical changes in an animal nearing death, they are simply using their excellent olfactory sense to find carrion as they circle.
While not "pretty", at least in the typical sense, they are graceful as they exploit thermals, slowly circling in search of their next meal.

ID tips: Not too difficult to figure out a vulture versus a hawk. When vultures soar, they tilt back and forth, while a hawk will remain mostly steady.

All vultures find food with their incredible eyesight, but new world (American) vultures have a keenly developed sense of smell, on which they rely for most of their foraging. Turkey vultures use an even combination of smell and sight--whichever reaches them first. The rest of the New World vultures rely partially on smell and more on eyesight, or the activities of turkey vultures. Old world vultures have no sense of smell, and rely solely on eyesight.

African and Asian vultures, being descended from hawks and eagles, have no sense of smell. This goes for most of the bird kingdom. American vultures, however, including the turkey vulture, black vulture, Andean and California condor, and king vulture, CAN smell. The turkey vulture, in particular, has a very well developed sense of smell. These birds are descended from storks and ibises. The turkey vulture has shown itself to use its sense of smell as a predominant means of finding food. Scientists even used turkey vultures to find a leak in a many-mile-long gas pipeline, by pumping a form of gas through the lines that smelled like carrion.
Vultures are attracted to the scent of mercaptan, the gas produced by the beginnings of decay. The gas company pumped it through the lines, and where it leaked through, turkey vultures began to congregate.

Vultures are the Garbage Men of the natural world. Without them and other scavengers,
the world would be a very stinky and unhealthy place.
Ever wonder if a vulture will eat anything? Will they eat a carcass that is absolutely putrid?
NO. Even they have limits. Yes, vultures WILL turn their nose up at carcasses in advanced stages of putrefaction. They prefer their meat fresh, but often must wait a few days for the hide to soften enough for their weak beaks to penetrate it.

American vultures used to be considered birds of prey, until a recent study, using DNA, found that they are not related to hawks and eagles. They have weak feet, like chickens, more suitable for running on the ground, instead of the feet of hawks, etc, used to catch and kill prey. TVs share some interesting characteristics with their relatives, storks and ibises. They will, after stepping in a carcass, poop onto their own legs. Because of the nature of their diets and digestive system, vulture poop is actually a sanitizer. Their stomachs contain digestive acids that kill virtually all bacteria and viruses, and there is even evidence that they can consume meat infected with anthrax, destroying the virus in their digestive system. The uric acid in their feces kills any bacteria that they may have picked up from the dead animal.

best earl closeup

Random cool TV facts:

A group of vultures is called a "venue". When soaring, they are also called a "kettle".

Turkey vultures, contrary to popular assumption, do not eat absolutely anything placed in front of them. Predatory animals (and scavengers as well) typically feed on herbivorous animals.
The flesh of an herbivore is much tastier.
Turkey vultures will often pass up carcasses of cats, dogs, and coyotes. They will, however, eat such carcasses in the absence of more desirable food.

Baby turkey vultures are born with pure white feathers and gray faces.
Yes, they actually start out CUTE.

It is illegal to keep a vulture (or any bird of prey or migratory bird) as a pet. This is why we have Earl. Someone thought a TV would make a good pet. Earl has no idea she is a bird. She thinks she is a person. But she doesn't belong in either world. She doesn't know how to be a TV, and she definitely can't act like a human!

Turkey vultures have little or no feathers on their heads due to the way they feed. Since they will often stick their whole heads into a carcass, it's just easier to not have any feathers up there to clean.

The oldest known turkey vulture, Tolouse, is 33 years old, and lives at the San Francisco Zoo.
(If we can keep Earl in good health for the next 10 years, we could break the record!)

The term "buzzard" comes from the Old World and was brought here by settlers. In Europe, "buzzard" means any bird in the hawk family. When settlers came here, they were reminded of Old World hawks when they saw New World vultures.
Calling a vulture a buzzard is technically incorrect.

earl spread out

Turkey Vultures are often seen standing in a spread-winged stance. This is called the "horaltic pose." The stance is believed to serve multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria.

Everyone suitably impressed with vultures now?
Only for you, Lynne. Only for you.


Lynne said...

Susan, i just love you a bunch.

I'll buy you pancakes in Cape May.

Ruth said...

Very interesting post. They are very common in our area and I sometimes see a group of them sitting by the river. They are so graceful in the air and so homely up close.

The Swami said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Swami said...

Very interesting. However, you did perpetuate a misconception about old world vultures. They can smell.

If you do not refrigerate your left-over vulture wings, within a few days they can really begin to smell up the yurt.

Mary said...

FANTASTIC! I learned more here than I learned during my whole 12th grade. They are more than just a pretty face.

Carolyn H said...

It's not just turkey vultures that "kettle" in groups. The term begain at Hawk Mountain and refers to any group (usually buteos) of hawks that circle in thermals. Some places don't use the term kettle at all--they prefer "boils," but I just can't warm up to that term.

Nice post
Carolyn H.

Susan Gets Native said...

Deal. What's the name of that great pancake/waffle place? Uncle something?
Lots of strawberries and whipped cream on mine.

Aren't they, though? They look so fantastic way up, but I get close to Earl and I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Swami: THAT in bad taste.

Well, thank you!
I'm more than just a pretty face, too.
: )

Carolyn H:
Yes, thanks for that. I forgot to mention that. Did you know that they are called "kettles" because the birds resemble a boiling pot of water as they circle and rise?
(Loved the last sentence of your comment...humor goes well here.)