Vultures exist somewhere outside that circle, though. Neither predator, nor prey, vultures are like a benevolent third party, stoically doing what needs to be done, acting as nature’s groundskeepers whenever, wherever, life succumbs to death. Vultures are not the most graceful birds to look at, though their flight patterns, wide wings spread into a high V shape, rocking back and forth, are certainly something to behold. They certainly aren’t the most attractive, either, with their bald heads and their propensity for eating dead animals, even when said animals have been baking in the sun. They don’t have the majesty of an eagle, or the grace of a falcon. They don’t know the thrill of the hunt; their quarry, after all, has nowhere to go. Nonetheless, vultures serve a role, and do it exceedingly well. Nature has fashioned them for their purpose, and while they may not be pretty, they are essential.
Vultures have an incredibly well developed sense of smell; according to Cornell University’s famed ornithology department, the Turkey Vulture’s “heightened ability to detect odors—it can detect just a few parts per trillion—allows it to find dead animals below a forest canopy.” They can detect even the most minute whiff of death, and once they locate the source, they go about their work, picking it clean. Their bald heads enable them to feast on carcasses without fear of contaminating their feathers, and once they have fed, their baldness allows for sunlight to rain down and kill any incidental germs. It’s for that same reason that vultures are so commonly seen with their wings spread, even while perched; doing so allows the sun to hit as much of their body area as possible. As yet a further defense against contamination, they urinate upon their own legs, both to cool themselves off, and as a means to kill any bacteria that might be clinging to them
Glamorous they are not. But they are important players in countless ecosystems, and their efforts around the world expedite the continued natural cycle. Their unique behaviors give them a sort of egalitarian quality that pays dividends when rehabbing them. At Liberty Wildlife, we can cohabitate vultures with other species, in order to make the most of our limited number of flight cages. Since vultures exist outside of the normal predator-prey dynamic, we can integrate them with other species in ways that we couldn’t otherwise. Other species don’t regard them as competition, or as food; they’re simply there. They make for unique guests, and at the same time, offer us a chance to appreciate one of the unsung wonders of the natural world. Pretty and pivotal aren’t codependent. No one would mistake them as pretty, but by the same token, none of us should miss out on the opportunity to marvel at what truly is a uniquely impressive, uniquely qualified, animal.
Theirs is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.