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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Nichole Leclair Terrill