Published on July21, 2020

Despite their reputation, these birds serve a need

By Jan Edwards
The Bulletin

“The Mayans have drawn them; they can smell lunch five miles away; criminologists are exploring ways to use them to locate dead bodies; and they even have a day named after them. What are they?

Buzzards, you say? Vultures? Birds of a feather that fly together and get very little respect. They are usually associated with doom and death. Yet, they are fascinating.

“Buzzards” have several designations depending on their actions. They are defined as any of various hawks that are slow and heavy in flight. Buzzards and vultures are distinctly named and separated in Europe, Africa, and Asia, but some birds go by both names in North America.

What we refer to as buzzards are actually two different new world vultures: the black vulture and the turkey vulture.

There are 23 vulture species around the world, and at least one type of vulture is found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Vulture species are divided into New World (the Americas and Caribbean) and Old World (Europe, Asia, and Africa) groups depending on their ranges.

There are more vulture species in the Old World, and they are not closely related to New World vultures.

The two groups are often considered together, however, because they fill a similar ecological niche. New World vultures may be more closely related to storks than to other raptors.

Black vultures have a black featherless head, while the turkey vulture sports a distinctive bald red head.

They are both very clean birds and love taking baths in water puddles.

Both vultures feed mostly on carrion, or road kill, although the black vulture will also eat eggs or kill newborn animals.

The turkey vulture, a scavenger, is one of the few birds that forages for food by the sense of smell along with keen eyesight. By flying low to the ground, it picks up a gas smell that acts like a dinner bell. Its olfactory system can guide him to carrion five miles away.

It’s a myth that vultures circle a dying animal waiting until it dies so it can have lunch. They soar on the thermals and can smell a carcass miles away. They approach quickly before other predators find it.

Both vultures share some interesting peculiarities:
- Their only sounds are hisses and grunts.
- They are relatively social and often feed, fly or roost in large flocks.
- They are carnivorous and eat mostly carrion.
- Vultures have heads and necks devoid of feathers, which prevent bacteria and parasites that could otherwise burrow into the feathers and cause infections.
- They have highly acidic stomachs, giving them a high immunity and resistance to anthrax, botulism, hog cholera and rabies.
- Vultures have weak legs and feet with blunt talons, but strong bills.
- Scientists have begun to study vultures’ abilities and are considering using the birds to help find bodies from crimes.
- Vultures appear in Mayan hieroglyphics and Mayan codices associated with death or birds of prey.
- Vultures have their own holiday – International Vulture Awareness Day, which is the first Saturday of each September.

Vultures: Brazoria County’s - and perhaps every other county’s - best road sanitation crew.

And now you know, but don’t run out and get one. They don’t make good pets.

Get a parakeet, instead.

(Write Jan in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)