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Field Notes

A soaring vulture

The Misunderstood Vulture

By Loti Woods

Being a vulture really sucks. Ugly, evil-looking, and known for eating rotting carcasses; it all adds up to being completely misunderstood.

African vulture
We saw this vulture in 2019 in Kenya.

When I was a little girl, I was always picked on because I was small, awkward and nerdy. And being always the last to get chosen for any sports is a really terrible thing when you are a kid. But there I was, time after time, standing by myself while 2 team captains argued over who would get stuck with me. At least, I never overheard what they said.

Disgusting?


So imagine how vultures must feel if they knew what people say about them. They are hideous, they are bald, they are nasty and they eat dead things. Or they are just plain disgusting! And you certainly don’t want them on your team! Hmmm.

A black vulture with its wings spread.


So you might not find it surprising we (Dale & I) love vultures. And what is not to love about these magnificent creatures. Skeptical you say? Well, read on to be enchanted. Ok, maybe not enchanted but at least enlightened.

vulture head
How can you not love this vulture?


Think scavengers, eating dead animals. While it sounds disgusting, vultures prevent these dead animals from decaying and spreading diseases like botulism and anthrax. Now would you rather have a vulture around or botulism? They are truly the winged vacuum cleaners of our planet, keeping the environment clean from rotting carcasses. 

vultures congregating in Kenya
Vultures congregating in Kenya

Vultures are the Fastest Declining Group of Birds


But why should we care? And what happens if they disappear? Look at India in the 1990s. Vultures were eating cattle treated with a popular inflammatory drug. When the cow dies, the carcass is left in the field since most Indians are Hindu and don’t eat beef. The vultures feed on the carcass, the drug causes liver failure in the birds and they die. Over 98% of the population died. What happened next? Catastrophe.

A soaring vulture
A soaring vulture


Water contamination soared due to rotting carcasses. The feral dog population exploded (since they had all these dead carcasses on which to feed) as did rabies. India spent $34 billion in additional healthcare costs because of a massive rabies epidemic. The drug is now banned and thankfully, vulture populations are beginning to stabilize.


In Africa, deliberate and accidental poisonings are crashing vulture populations. A lion kills a cow so the farmer retaliates by lacing the cow’s body with poison in order to kill the lion. And yes, not only the lion dies but so do potentially hundreds of vultures feeding on the same cow or lion. Wow, this gets complicated. You can read a more in-depth article on the crisis in “Africa’s Vultures Threatened By An Assault on All Fronts”.

Vultures feeding on a carcass in Africa


And why are vultures so ugly with their bald heads and necks? As they bury their heads in a carcass, the bare skin (without feathers) stays cleaner eliminating parasites from clinging to them which keeps them healthy. So there is a reason they don’t have feathers on their heads, which makes them ugly to some.

Why are Vultures so Ugly?

In the US, there are 3 vultures, the black vulture, the turkey vulture and the condor. While the condor is critically endangered with only 488 birds in the wild, the black & turkey vultures are numerous. If you want to learn how to tell a turkey vulture from a black one, this is a great article.

Cool Facts About Vultures


One of the coolest facts about vultures? They poop on their legs to stay cool. It also helps sterilize their legs (which sounds very counter-intuitive) from all the bacteria from the carcasses. Also, when threatened the turkey vulture will vomit on whatever is near, including you. Wow, this just gets better & better.

vulture legs
A black vulture. Check out those legs!

If You Love Vultures?


So maybe now you have fallen in love with these wonderful creatures.
What can you do? Visit and support zoos that help protect them. Many zoos have vulture conservation programs. We work with the folks at the NC Zoo which has a great program providing resources to rangers in Africa to study vultures.  


Support vulture conservation groups like the Peregrine Fund. (For more information on how to vet a charity see our blog). And you can help your friends fall in love (or at least understand) vultures and all the cool things about them like pooping on their legs! Spread the love of vultures so being a vulture will no longer suck.

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