From Xplor for Kids
February 2011 Issue

Vulture Culture

Publish Date

Feb 01, 2010

Revised Date

Jan 28, 2011

The sickly sweet smell of rotting flesh hangs in the humid air. A large black bird circles overhead, homing in on the scent. It soon spies the source, a dead opossum swollen in the sun like a furry balloon. The bird touches down, hops over and plunges its beak eye-deep into the bulging belly. POP! The opossum explodes, showering the bird with fragments of spoiled flesh. It picks the carcass clean, leaving little for the flies. Although this seems gross, it’s just part of the fascinating culture of vultures.

Ugly, Graceful Gliders

With scruffy dark feathers and bald, wrinkly heads, vultures won’t win many birdie beauty contests. But let them take flight, and they just might win a talent show. Turkey vultures can soar for hours, holding their 6-foot wings in a shallow V as they ride currents of rising warm air called thermals. Their cousins, black vultures, work harder to stay airborne, flapping their wings often in between short glides. Since thermals don’t form until the sun heats the ground, vultures aren’t early birds. They rarely leave their roosts before 9 a.m.

Follow the Leader

Turkey vultures have super sniffers that they use to find decaying animals to dine on. Black vultures, like most birds, can’t smell squat. To find food, black vultures hover high in large flocks until they see a turkey vulture descend. Then, the black vultures quickly drop and pig pile on the carcass, using their numbers to bully the turkey vulture off its dinner. When the feeding frenzy ends, the turkey vulture returns to polish off the scraps.

Barf Bags

Forget creamed peas. Vultures feed their babies by throwing up chunks of partially digested meat. While their parents are away, vulture chicks fend for themselves. They hiss, stamp their feet and rush at intruders to scare them away. If any critter creeps too close, the chicks puke on them. The vile smell of this barf bomb is enough to send would-be predators packing.

A Face Only a Mother Could Love

In spring, vulture couples search for a hollow stump, abandoned building or cave in which to raise a family. The pair doesn’t bother building a nest. Instead, the female lays two creamy-white eggs on the bare ground. Both parents take turns sitting on the eggs until they hatch about a month later. The chicks are completely helpless at first but soon grow into bouncy balls of dingy-white fluff.

Who's Up for a Sleepover?

Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of vultures spend the night roosting together in large trees. Vultures lack a voice box, so they can’t sing or tweet. Instead, they chat with each other through hisses and grunts. Before taking flight the next morning, vultures warm up by spreading their long black wings to soak up sunshine. To cool down, they pee on their legs. This disgusting habit has an added benefit: Acid in the urine kills any bacteria clinging to the vulture’s legs.

Nature's Cleanup Crew

Most critters would get a terrible tummy ache—or even die— from eating rotten meat, but not vultures. The acid in their stomachs is so strong, most germs can’t survive a cruise through their guts. Vulture poop, in fact, is surprisingly disease-free. By eating spoiled meat, vultures keep diseases from spreading. Without vultures, the world would be much sicker—and stinkier!

Also in this issue

Photos With Nop and Dave: Cranky Snake

Nop Paothong lay belly-down on the forest floor, trying hard not to irritate the large and quite venomous cottonmouth coiled 3 feet in front of him.

You Discover

With winter almost gone and spring right around the corner, there’s plenty for you to discover outside in February and March. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Wild Jobs: Bug Detective Rob Lawrence

Bad bugs beware. Insect investigator Rob Lawrence is on the case.

My Outdoor Adventure

At first, Cedar was content to watch his dad and uncle snag paddlefish.

Xplor More: Time to Build a Bluebird House

What’s red, white and blue, eats bugs, and sings in the spring? It’s Missouri’s state bird, the eastern bluebird.

This Issue's Staff:

David Besenger
Bonnie Chasteen
Chris Cloyd
Peg Craft
Brett Dufur
Les Fortenberry
Chris Haefke
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Kevin Lanahan
Kevin Muenks
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole Leclair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Alicia Weaver
Cliff White
Kipp Woods

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