A Cop, A Vulture, and a Misunderstanding

I had just been telling some friends recently how I needed to get my hearing checked.  I keep mishearing phrases on the radio or things my husband says.  Well, an incident on my walk soon after proved my point and probably made me appear quite strange.

I was walking on our road with my daughter Mauri, and I had stopped to take a picture of an immature turkey vulture perched on a dead branch above us – looking just like a Disney caricature.  As I was taking the photo, a car slowed behind me and I assumed the driver was wondering what I was doing.  I started explaining before completely turning and registering the driver.  It was a local county police officer.

“Yeah, it’s a vulture all right.  Don’t get too close or he’ll fill up on you.”

Huh?  Was this guy serious or pulling my leg?  So I said something eloquent and profound in response.  “But I’m not dead.”

“Don’t matter.  If you get too close they’ll fill up on you.”

Oh man, this is some tall tale spreading around the county. What a poor, misinformed soul, I thought.  This time I came back with the equally profound, “Really?”

vultureIMG_1531He pulled away continuing his admonishment, “Be careful; don’t get too close.”

This seemed totally absurd to me.  A turkey vulture, though large and intimidating, would not swoop down, attack me, and eat me.  If this were true, the population of humans in our county would be decreasing at an alarming rate.  We have a lot of vultures.  Vultures are detritivores, preferring dead flesh.  Maybe they’d changed, got a taste of fresh blood, and I’d not heard about it yet.  I doubted all this and turned my confused expression to Mauri, who had been quiet throughout the whole interchange.

“Can you believe he thinks it would eat me?”

It was Mauri’s turn to say, “Huh?”

She continued with, “He said it would throw up on you if you get too close?”

Really?  Oh, boy do I need to get my ears checked!  This first thought was quickly subdued by my ever skeptic nature and I started to wonder if this vomit proclamation was even true.

So I spent the next few days learning about vultures.  By the way, the police officer was correct, vultures are known to throw up (not fill up) on you.  It is a defense mechanism used to ward off a predator.  Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are the more aggressive of our two local species of vultures and are more likely to use the tactic.  However, they will also come at you hissing and biting, so it may not be necessary to also try the projectile-vomiting technique.  Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are more passive and while they are capable of and will use projectile vomiting, they will also try playing dead – a little ironic don’t you think?  While my skepticism was placated, this fact was not what I found most fascinating from my readings.  And I’m not really worried about being targeted while walking or even while photographing a vulture.

The genus for turkey vulture, Cathartes, is Greek for purifier, and used to portray its ecological niche.  While all vultures purify, or clean up decomposing animal bodies, they have different genus designations because of evolving in different parts of the world from different ancestors.  There are only three species in the genus Cathartes: the Turkey Vulture, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) and the Greater Yellow-headed Vulture (Cathartes melanbrotus).  The latter two are tropical species.

Vultures have featherless heads to facilitate easier clean up after eating rotting flesh because they often have to stick their heads deep into a carcass.  Their feet and toes are not strong like raptors and therefore vultures cannot take food back to a roost or fly off with it to eat elsewhere.  They must eat at the site of the carcass and the feet serve to hold it in place while they feed.  Vulture comes from the Latin word vellere, which means to tear.

The turkey vulture has a keen sense of smell – not common in birds – and can smell a rotting carcass from up to 200 feet in the air.  The tropical vultures also have this keen sense of smell, allowing them to find food despite the dense canopy.  Black vultures do not have this keen sense of smell and find carcasses by noting where turkey vultures are hunting.

I learned a new word while learning about vultures.  They have an arguably gross way of cooling off called urohidrosis – literally, sweating with urine.  This means they defecate on their feet and are then cooled as the fluids evaporate.  The waste contains uric acid, which is antibiotic, perhaps also helping vultures to fill their niche without getting an infection from their culinary habits.  Storks also utilize urohidrosis and can accumulate enough fluid on their legs to turn them white.

If after reading this, you don’t have some positive fascination, respect, or even endearment for the homely turkey vulture, then slow down and drive with more care.  Our ever-expanding highway system and increased speeds have provided a readily available source of road kill and have contributed greatly to their growing populations.  I have gained some endearment for turkey vultures, but I have also learned a valuable lesson from the encounter on the road that day.  It appears that while I do not necessarily believe everything I hear or read – a good trait to have – it also appears that I cannot trust everything I hear – a problematic condition to have.



6 thoughts on “A Cop, A Vulture, and a Misunderstanding”

  1. This is SO Interesting, Lisa, and
    shudder inducing, and

    and yet another example of what Disney Doesn’t tell :o)


  2. Dear Lisa,
    Hurray to you for informing your readers about the value of our local vultures. I wrote a letter to a local paper back in 2005 when there was talk of eliminating this valuable creature. Here’s what I wrote:

    Vulture populations in Rockbridge County have been getting a bum rap lately, especially from the local press. I feel it is time to come to their defense. Turkey and Black Vultures are not newcomers to this area, these native bird species are here for a very important reason. They keep our forests, roads and pastures free of the carcasses of dead animals. There are more vultures around these days and it may have something to do with the overpopulation of white-tailed deer. A possible reason for why they are settling closer to humans may be that they are losing more and more of the habitat they need as human development increases.

    According to The Birds of North America (BNA), considered by Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://birds.cornell.edu) as “the authoritative compendium of scientific research on birds in our region.”, both Turkey and Black Vultures eat almost exclusively carrion. Turkey Vultures have been known to take live prey only in situations where they are trapped, captive or anesthetized. Black Vultures will occasionally kill newborn domestic livestock but there is no evidence that they spread disease. Back in the 1800s, this species was a familiar and accepted sight around meat markets because they helped control disease by cleaning up carcasses. When modern sanitation laws were instituted, concerns that Vultures spread disease resulted in thousands being killed. This eradication continued until the early 1970s. According to BNA: “Overall, there is no evidence that Black Vultures are significant vectors of disease, and the benefit they provide in removing carcasses probably significantly reduces spread of disease in areas where sanitation is rudimentary.”

    Here are some other facts about vultures I found in BNA: Their feet are generally too weak to carry a load, they can only drag it a short distance. Black Vultures do not have a good sense of smell so they rely on Turkey Vultures who have a highly developed sense of smell to lead them to carrion. Since they roost communally they need large trees, in hilly areas that provide deflective updrafts for flight. Their roosts facilitate group foraging and social interaction, these roosts range in size from a few birds to several thousand. Black Vultures maintain strong social bonds as long as they are able to breed successfully. They are monogamous, forming long-term bonds with one mate and the pair may feed their young for up to 8 months after fledging.

    If the City is successful in getting the vultures to move on, they will end up in someone else’s backyard. I do emphasize with those who have experienced vulture damage but, why can’t we think about a more long-term solution, such as establishing an area where these vultures will be left alone to live in peace. BNA makes the following management recommendation: “Vultures are vulnerable to disturbance at both nests and roosts. Therefore, whenever possible, these sites should be protected from human disturbance, and destruction of woodlots and mature trees should be discouraged.” I couldn’t agree more. Vultures deserve our respect and protection.

    Very truly yours,
    Wendy E. Richards


  3. Yup, been there done that – well been there had turkey vulture unload its lunch when I startled it in the woods. Very cool birds, very unappreciated. When I was at duke they had them walking on treadmills to measure basal metabolism. They expend minimal energy looking for food.


    1. Hi Fred, Interesting how they were studying basal metabolism of turkey vultures at Duke. I thought they usually looked for food from the air. I wonder how the energy expended flying versus walking compares. I wonder too what they thought of treadmill walking at Duke!


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