Turkey vultures high on yuck factor but also helpful

DISCLAIMER: Let me start off by saying that if you’re eating while reading this, it might be best stop one or the other. I would prefer you stop the eating. Just a fair and friendly warning for what lies ahead.

The Turkey Vulture is one of the unsung heroes of the animal world. Without the vulture we might be knee-deep in dead animals and the roads would be slick. They are the scavengers of carrion (as a side note, eagles will do the same, if need be).

Vultures even have their own holiday. The first Saturday in September is International Vulture Awareness Day, so mark your calendars now; we’ll have a party and invite some neighborhood vultures over. We will not eat the same food.

Here are some facts about vultures you can share at your next dinner party (comes in handy with the in-laws or if you’re short of food).

They are the masters at using updrafts and thermals when it comes to flying and have been seen as high as 20,000 feet. Vultures are one of the most social birds in the world; they feed, fly and roost in large flocks. A bunch of vultures sitting around is called a venue; if they’re flying, it’s called a kettle. Vultures are handicapped a bit by having weak legs and blunt talons.

There are 23 species in the world, divided into Old and New World Vultures, and they are not related to each other. Our vultures stand about 26 to 31 inches with a wing span of 5½ to 6 feet. The largest of the New World Vultures is the Andean Condor of South America with a wingspan of 10 to 11 feet.

They have excellent senses of sight and smell to find food and can spot or smell their next meal up to one mile or more away, including under tree cover. They prefer fresh meat but aren’t all that picky.

One question you might be asking yourself is, “Why do they have bare heads?” This is so bacterial parasites can’t burrow into their feathers. Another common question is, “How can they eat that stuff and not get sick?”

The answer: They have a stomach acid that is stronger and more corrosive than other birds’ and animals’ stomach acids; this kills any bacteria eaten.

This brings us to another point: While mostly they prefer their meals to be completely dead, they will attack animals that are wounded, sick or dying. It is a vicious myth that they will attack healthy animals (or people).

Vultures use no nesting material but will nest in a cave, crevice or among boulders, laying two dull white or creamy brown eggs. These eggs will be incubated for 28 to 40 days; the vultures then care for the young for up to 84 days.

How do they feed their young? Glad you asked. Since vultures have weak legs, they cannot carry food back to the nest for the young. They just simply overeat, return to the nest and regurgitate the food for the young (and you thought diet food was nasty).

If you watch them long enough on a hot day, you might catch them cooling their legs and feet by urinating on them. The story about the vultures throwing up when threatened is true, and they also might defecate near you (either way is not pleasant).

They have been known to play dead at first. The reasons they throw up are that not only does it stink, but it also can burn the eyes of any predator. It also helps make them lighter so they can escape more quickly.

Their biggest contribution besides cleaning up our roads is that by eating the animals they prevent the spread of diseases, such as rabies.

They are generally silent but can produce a hiss or a grunt if threatened. I guess vultures don’t have much to sing about.

A large venue of vultures can be impressive. When they migrate back here they fill the trees. I’ve seen them in March at Spring Mill State Park, near the Inn, filling the trees to almost full, just hanging around.