As the Med Services folks at Liberty Wildlife work with the two condors in our care, attempting to leach out the lead that is causing their crops to stop functioning properly, these dedicated ones are made keenly aware of the important niche that vultures fill in the environment, scavenging carrion. Emptying a crop of undigested food is pretty ghastly, and this store-bought food we use hasn’t been sitting in the desert decaying for two or three days. Also, it isn’t filled with potentially deadly bacteria or disease causing organisms. Vultures, including condors, are scavengers who interestingly enough have the effective defense of spewing their “meal” as much as 6’ to run off an unsuspecting predator….bad going in the first time, scary and horrendous coming back out! But, a great adaptation for defense….
It appears that just scavenging for “garbage” isn’t the whole story. The upside isn’t just a cleaner environment. There is some discussion about the possibility that vultures, like the turkey vulture, might be a key factor in lowering the incidence of rabies in areas where vultures are found in abundance.
Think about it. Vultures are carrion eaters….they eat already dead things. Now some of these dead animals could be dead because they were hit by a car. They could just be inefficient at feeding themselves thus starving to death (not a lot of meat there). They could have been trapped, electrocuted or downed by some other fallout from civilization. And, they could have been shot and left to die with all of the implications of that nasty subject…lead fragments.
But, many of these objects of the vulture diet might have died from naturally occurring diseases like rabies, tularemia or canine distemper. Their very acidic digestive system allows vultures to consume these otherwise deadly organisms without being impacted in the same way as other animals. Scavengers like coyotes or rats lacking this acidic system can consume the same carrion and end up with the disease that took down the free meal….not such a good deal for them or the environment they move around in….playing their part in spreading the disease.
Old World vultures, a member of a different family that is more closely aligned with eagles, have developed the same niche as our New World vultures (found in the family tree with storks) and are an example of convergent evolution. Their way of making a living has resulted in birds that resemble each other in appearance though they are actually separated in their ancestry. Studies in India are looking at the possibility that there is a connection between areas where Old World vultures are few in number and the higher incidence of rabies.
This is an interesting study that may or may not prove to be fact, but if it is shown to be accurate, we can add that to the many other values of having vultures in our midst, for doing what we can, when we can, to make sure they continue to grace our environs (and I mean that)…starting with allowing them to feast on the less lucky creatures without the fear of ingesting something that they aren’t able to adapt to….like lead! We owe them that.
This Week at Liberty
The intake total for the year is now at 145.
OK, sunny Phoenix was “snowy Phoenix” last week as the temps dipped and the precipitation turned white – as in ice pellets and snow. For an afternoon, Liberty was inundated with frozen stuff from above. But as we all know, in a month or two, we’ll all be lamenting the arrival of the heat that is surely on the horizon. In the meantime, we’re still doing shows for schools, and still providing care for Arizona’s wildlife, from the smallest hummingbird to the largest condor.
On the bottom end of the size scale, this little hummer came in with a damaged wing. Hummingbirds are very fragile and great care is used in treating them. They don’t do well in cold temperatures so last week was tough on the hummer population.
Luke AFB has a continuing issue with birds in general and raptors in particular (and I don’t mean F-22 type raptors!) Hawks and falcons are regularly trapped as they are considered hazards to the fighter jets that fly in and out of Luke and recently several dead hawks were brought to us for use in the feather repository. Along with the carcasses was this beautiful dark RTH who seemed to have some residual effects of being trapped for an extended period of time. Hopefully the bird will recover and again fly the skies of Arizona.
The two condors we are treating for lead poisoning are improving but very slowly. As the symptoms of the toxin subsides, their crops begin to function again, but the process is not rapid. In the interim, they must be caught and their crops cleaned of not yet processed food. This rotten material is quite “fragrant” and since the birds struggle a lot, the task of holding them, flushing the crops, weighing them, and feeding them is not overly pleasant. Who says wildlife rehabilitation isn’t fun?
Kathy Hagerty, one of our star Daily Care volunteers is also a prize winning artist, doing bird carvings in astonishingly realistic detail. She recently competed in the Desert Woodcarving Show with her breath taking rendition of a male kestrel. In her own words…
“The kestrel is made of basswood and started as a block of wood. I made a clay model to determine pose and dimensions. Everything was hand carved…each toe took 90 minutes. All the feathers go through a process: rough out, shaped, sanded, texturized and many washes of acrylic paint…so each feather has been touched at least 8 times. Each individual feather barb is burned by hand. Measurements are taken everywhere, feathers are counted all for anatomical accuracy. This year, I was fortunate enough to receive a 1st place in Realistic Bird of Prey, life-sized, painted.”
Some volunteers just never stop working, finding things to do even when things get slow. Sharon and Joanie are in this category. Last week they got tired of looking at the disarray on the north side of the building and cleaned and straightened up all the carriers and donated materials that were piling up on the shelves. Now, Tim and Joe are going to build doors on the shelving to cover the equipment and stores. Our people are GREAT!!
Yeah, this is the “Valley of the sun”, or so we all thought until this week. On Wednesday, a storm system came across the southwest and dumped lots of frozen precipitation on us in the form of snow and a kind of slushy granular hail (called ice pellets by pilots.) Since most of the year we have very high ambient temps, anytime we get to see solid stuff falling from the sky, it’s an unusual day. Jan was quick enough to take some pictures of this uncommon event as Liberty turned white for a while.