Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why Turkey Vultures Are Cool

As I mentioned a few days ago, I've decided to write a profile of each of the Raptor species we often see here at the RMRP. I plan on getting the information primarily from interviewing birds here at the RMRP, with supplemental goodies from Wikipedia.

First up on the list, simply because they're due to arrive any day now, is the awesome and amazing Turkey Vulture.

As a general statement, Humans really seem to dislike these birds. That is, they dislike them until they get to know them--then they love them forever. I think it's the whole "carrion thing" that deters the Humans, but once they understand how the "carrion thing" is part of a whole suite of really hootin' cool evolutionary adaptations, they seem to come around. So, in an effort to help the Humans who read this blog learn to love Turkey Vultures more quickly, I'm going to write about all the neat things Vultures have going for them.

Since I've already mentioned the "carrion thing", let's start there. Or, even more basically, let's start with this little fact: Turkey Vultures are not Raptors. A Raptor is defined by (anyone? anyone?) how it uses its feet to catch and kill its prey. Turkey Vultures (like most Vultures) don't have big strong feet like Raptors because they're not concerned with catching and killing prey. They're too smart for that (or so-say the resident Turkey Vultures...I think I'm plenty smart, and I killed a rat the other night). Instead, they find animals that have already bitten the dust, and eat them.

The way they find these dead animals is pretty cool. First of all, they have a "sense of smell". Not really having one of these myself, I'm not sure how to describe it, but I know that Turkey Vultures are pretty unique in their ability to smell ethyl mercaptan, a chemical emitted during decomposition, from such huge distances. Humans can smell ethyl mercaptan at 2.8 parts per billion. I haven't found the number, but Turkey Vultures can smell ethyl mercaptan from as much as two miles away--how many parts per billion is that?!  As an interesting aside, Humans add ethyl mercaptan to natural gas so they can smell it if there's a leak, and leaks in gas pipelines are often discovered early by circling Vultures.

More about Turkey Vultures and carrion: they spend their days soaring around on their broad wings, hardly flapping, until they detect some ethyl mercaptan in the air (or they see other circling Vultures in the distance). Then they slowly fly down, land and feast. That's where the other adaptations come in: Turkey Vultures have featherless heads so that they stay clean while dipping their heads into body cavities; and in addition to helping them detect smells, their nostrils (called nares on birds) go clean through their face so nothing can get clogged in there.

Now, imagine you're a talonless bird standing on the ground around a carcass, trying to eat your lunch...except all the other scavengers want it too...and they're bigger than you. What will you do to defend yourself? Turkey Vultures have a simple (if gross) solution: they regurgitate partially-digested rotting meat. Humans claim that the smell is vile, and it works well at deterring predators.

Alright, enough about food, time for intelligence. Turkey Vultures are endlessly curious and inquisitive. Hinges? Open them! Feeding mat? Turn it upside down and fold it into a wonton! Shoelaces? Untied before you know it! They learn quickly and remember forever, and they always test their limits. The Humans are always talking about how they can't flinch when an educational Turkey Vulture tries biting the soft fleshy bit of the arm just above a glove, or else the Vulture will remember it and never leave the Human in peace. Intelligence comes with a price.

And, finally, let's talk about how good they look. Seriously, Turkey Vultures are some of the handsomest birds, with their bright eyes and rosy skin. Don't get me wrong, my tastes lie more with large yellow eyes and a deep hoot, but there's no denying the dapper good looks of a Turkey Vulture.

A few more tidbits: Turkey Vultures migrate in enormous flocks called kettles; they roost communally at night, then catch the thermals to go soaring around in the morning; they mute (poop) down the backs of their bare, featherless legs and let the evaporation of the urates cool them off; their heads are greyish black for the first two years, then turn red when they become adults.

The RMRP has two educational Turkey Vultures. One of these is young and mischievous, always looking for a shoelace to untie and a new volunteer to intimidate. The other is referred to as the Old Male. He was admitted to the RMRP in 1988 as an adult bird. That makes him at least 25years at this point! That well exceeds the wild lifespan of 16 years. The Old Male isn't as much of a troublemaker as his counterpart, but he still keeps an eye open for exposed flesh.

So, there are some cool facts for you. And as the Turkey Vultures make their ways north, slowly winging towards Fort Collins for the summer, I hope you look forward to their arrival more than usual. Not only are they the harbingers of spring, they're also perfectly evolved creatures here to clean up the icky rotting carcasses of the world. And they're interesting to boot.

Next bird profile: Swainson's Hawks! Check back next week.


  1. Small typo.... TUVU OM was admitted in 1988 not 2008 but you age is right. And also they have just been spotted in the air space above Fort Collins yesterday by our one and only vulture enthusiast Carin Avila! (she is the one that told me how awesome these guys are and showed me how to love them for who they are)

    1. Thanks for the edit. I think it was a slip of the talon on the keyboard. Maybe I need soft-paws for typing?