Spinning tales about vultures


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Vultures are scavengers regularly misidentified as buzzards (birds from the Buteo genus).  They are reviled because of their nourishment:  primarily carrion (dead animals), preferably fresh. 

Two species inhabit Florida — New World vultures.  Turkey vultures are dark brown with bare red heads; black vultures, slightly smaller, display bare gray heads.  Both species are social and occasionally flock together.

Wingspans extend up to 6 feet for turkey vultures and more than 5 feet for black vultures.  They glide on thermals (rising air currents) searching for carrion.  Wings positioned in a slight “V” distinguishes turkey vultures, master soarers.  Less efficient black vultures soar with wings straight and flap more.  Besides flight, food quests rely on keen eyesight, smell and sound.

Turkey vultures possess a heightened sense of smell.  They are instrumental in locating gas-line leaks (which smell like carrion) because they circle above.  At times, they fly low to detect gas escaping from beginning decay in animal remains.  Black vultures are deficient in smelling abilities; a group might have to follow a turkey vulture (commonly forages solitarily) and seize its meal.

Preferred habitats are relatively open areas, including suburban regions.  Routinely, vultures (referred to as a “wake” when feeding) devour roadkill, hopping while boldly dodging traffic.  Vocalization is released in grunts and hisses.  Harassment promotes regurgitation to reduce weight for immediate flight.  Moreover, the malodor deters aggressors.

Occasionally, vultures need to kill for survival — sick or disabled prey, rarely healthy.  Ranchers abhor black vultures because they aggressively pursue newborn calves and periodically cows giving birth.  

Since carrion harbors disease, featherless heads allow cleaner feeding (also regulate body temperature).   A spread-wing stance bakes off bacteria.  Corrosive stomach acid, almost comparable to battery acid, kills ingested bacteria.  Consequently, excretions are free of disease.  Therefore, urine released on legs serves as a sanitizer and cooling agent. Perilous are toxins, lead and drug residue in consumed carrion.  In India and surrounding countries, veterinary diclofenac in cattle carcasses acutely reduced vultures.

Reproduction commonly includes laying two eggs, perhaps on the ground or under palmetto thickets.  Little or no nest structure exists.  Black vultures might decorate the surroundings with colored plastic debris, glass shards and bottle caps.  Weak legs and blunt talons are ill-adapted for grasping and transporting food to chicks; therefore, nourishment is swallowed, stored in the crop (pouch in throat), and later disgorged to offspring.

Unquestionably, vultures are invaluable:  they restrict the spread of disease by consuming carrion.  Furthermore, scientists anticipate training vultures to locate crime victims.  Appreciation occurs yearly in September during International Vulture Awareness Day. 

Turkey vultures and coyotes have a somewhat symbiotic relationship.  Even with hooked beaks, vultures sometimes find a hide impenetrable.  Persistent, they circle above.  Eager coyotes are alerted; these able mammals rupture the hide and partake first.  When they are satiated, the vultures finally feed. 

Joseph Scalia, 7, placed first in the writing category for his age group at this year’s The Charlie Corbeil Conservation Awards Youth Arts Contest.  Joseph claims, “Conservation is important because the trees help make oxygen and give the animals a home.”  He submitted a haiku.


Viera Wetlands at Night 

I heard a strange sound

I think it was coyotes

Roaming the Wetlands