When I was a young girl, many, many years back, my Mom and I often picked wild strawberries as a special summertime treat for this night’s dessert. On one occasion, as I bent down to loosen a cluster of sweet little red berries from their stemsout of the corner of my eye something grabbed my attention. I looked beyond our neighbor’s house, and into the skies above’Sugar Hill’, where I had enjoyed watching a lot of awesomely beautiful sunsets. A large dark bird with an impressive wingspan was moving silently and slowly, circling in the skies over the mountain.
“What IS that, Mother?”
The facts about turkey vultures:
Gentle, caring and devoted parents
Do not spread any diseases whatsoever, contrary to popular beliefs
Essential part of Nature’s cleanup crew
Purify environment by eliminating animal cadavers that are already infected
Considered sacred in certain cultures for their gift of sanitizing
Enjoy soaring on high using hot thermals to lift them ever upward
Resemble wild turkeys with their red featherless head, dark body and two-tone wings
Lazy, dirty, aggressive, morbid harbingers of death? While those are understandable responses, I fear they are based on pictures conjured up by Hollywood Westerns.
The black vultures most often seen from the west and south throughout Mexico are really competitive.
However, the Turkey Vultures are quite another story. Common all over america, it is the turkey vulture that uses its highly developed capacity to detect the stench of cadavers, even at great distances. These large eagle-sized birds sport distinctive two-toned wings that are dark brown, with silvery gray feathers on their wing borders.
Turkey vulture heads are small and featherless for a very good reason. Think about it–similar to workmen dress for the job, these birds do exactly the opposite. They undress (their heads) to the task at hand. It is not pretty, but it is true. Vultures would be spending far too much of their time preening and cleaning rather than filling their bellies. The smaller head size allows them to get into all the nooks and crannies where the meat is. In the bird world, efficacy most often translates to survival.
When the young hatch from their excellently camouflaged eggs, they are helpless to defend or feed themselves. Their parents are ever watchful for possible predatory attacks, and they’re adept at providing plenty of food for their downy chicks for another 60 to 80 days.
In some cultures they’re revered as purifiers and cleansers. Buddhists believe they have the capability to release the soul and take it to Heaven. So it is a routine practice to offer their deceased to vultures for’cleansing’ and delivery into the firmament, also known as’sky burials’.
Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, really translates to ‘purifying breeze’ or’golden purifier’. Either of those interpretations is more accurate than the word’vulture’, which means to tear.
They’ll take turns, rather than fight over bits and pieces of flesh. Other birds, like the black vultures and hawks, find it easy to push them away out of their own finds.
Possessing excellent immune systems keeps them from contracting any nasty diseases from the dead creatures they ingest.
If they feel afraid or threatened they regurgitate (frequently at the direction of the perceived threat). This offensive act repels, and takes their attacker by surprise, with the sight and awful odor. Plus, it serves to lighten the load for a faster get away!
The unfounded fears that turkey vultures spread disease often prompts intentional shootings and cruel poisonings and trappings. However, these birds keep the environment clean and disease free, rather than the reverse.
As humans, I think we sometimes tend to equate beauty with goodness, and ugliness with evil. All living things have a role on this Earth. The much maligned Turkey Vulture serves a noble goal. We will need to look past the superficial idea of attractiveness, and give the Turkey Vulture the reverence it has rightfully earned and deserves.