Vultures are Cool

We were driving on a California country road this week surrounded by sweetly fragrant ceanothus wildflowers, when we came upon two lethargic turkey vultures standing in the road. Turns out they were doing us a big favor.

Because they were not moving for us, we slowly drove toward them and eventually they lifted slightly and got out of the road. But in the next moment a strong, putrid whiff of dead animal reached us. There was no carcass to be seen on this overgrown roadside, but somewhere nearby there was a dead and rotting animal.

Fortunately the vultures were on the job. They are a gregarious species, so eventually this dead animal will be completely consumed. The birds were lethargic because they were full.

There are 23 extant species of vultures in the world: 16 in the Old World (Africa, Asia, Europe) and 7 in the New World (the Americas).

Here in the U.S. we have three vulture species, all are pictured in this post: turkey vulture, black vulture, and California Condor.

More info: Vulture Wikipedia

The turkey vulture is the most widespread vulture species in the New World. Cathartes aura is a year-round bird in the warmer U.S. states and South America. We have them year-round in California.

Just about every time I am outside, nearly every day, I see at least one turkey vulture soaring overhead.

This is their classic look in flight, below.

Another common vulture sight is this one, below. It is called a horaltic stance, and serves multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria.

This is a turkey vulture nestling, below. The nest was in a small rock cave.

Turkey vultures do not have a vocal organ, so you don’t usually hear anything from them. But that day we found this baby turkey vulture, it elicited a shockingly evil hissing sound that I still hear in my mind when I look at the above photo.

Vultures are important for cleaning up the carrion that naturally exists on our planet. A vulture’s featherless head and hooked bill, seen below, are their carrion-eating tools.

They are also equipped with exceptionally corrosive stomach acid, allowing them to digest putrid carcasses infected with toxins and bacteria.

When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

We spotted this vulture species (below), California Condor aka Gymnogyps californianus, on the California coast near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in Big Sur. Ten years ago. We had visited a popular condor release site without success three years earlier, and finally had success in Big Sur, another release site, with this one. We actually saw two at the time, for about five really thrilling minutes.

They have the largest wingspan of any North American bird, measuring approximately10 feet (3.05 m).

There is an interesting story about this individual, #90, I’ll tell you another time.

California Condors are listed on the conservation status as critically endangered, and many vulture species have suffered a rapid decline due to loss of habitat, intentional and unintentional poisoning, and electrocution.

India and other countries have discovered that without vultures to pick animal corpses clean, there have been increased feral dog populations leading to increased dog bites and increased rabies transmission. But the problem is, protection comes too late. Vultures do not reproduce quickly. (In the U.S., vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.)

While in Africa on numerous safaris, I have had the pleasure of watching many African vultures. It is not the loveliest sight, seeing a vulture dig around in the intestines of a carcass, but it is interesting to see the hierarchy of animals and the bonanza that unfolds when one wild animal has killed another. Equally fascinating is observing how the parade of scavengers completely devours the carcass.

One day we had the rare honor of seeing a pack of wild dogs in Botswana. Before we arrived, they had killed an impala and dined extravagantly. Then they ran off in a frolic of energetic euphoria and the vultures came in.

A closer look reveals their bloody faces.

Here are the white-backed vultures, Gyps africanus, that attended the carcass after the wild dogs were done. You can see the head of the vulture on the left is deeply inside the carcass.

These vultures have a wingspan of 6-7 feet (1.96-2.25m), and are now, unfortunately, critically endangered.

Another time we came upon this baby elephant carcass. Vultures and storks were feeding. You can see the skull on the far right…it has been picked clean.

These banded mongooses were watching the frenzy.

Fantastic creatures with unique features, vultures help keep this earth safe and clean. Next time you smell sweetness in the air, remember it could be more than flowers at work.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

89 thoughts on “Vultures are Cool

  1. We incorrectly call ours buzzards. I love the silly things and could watch them ride the thermals for a long time. Didn’t they relocate a portion of the California condors to the Grand Canyon area to start a second population?

    • Boy those turkey vultures can ride the thermals, eh Craig? I enjoyed your comment today, thanks. Yes, California condors were relocated to the Grand Canyon as well as Zion, in addition to California spots and I also read in Baja California Mexico. Oh and AZ too. The condor reintroduction story is a fantastic one, I look forward to sharing that one sometime, too. Thanks Craig.

  2. We definitely owe them a debt of gratitude for their environmental services. I just heard that CA condors have at last returned to the northern redwoods after over a 100-yr. absence. Good news!
    I hope India and Africa will introduce reforms to help their populations. The world just doesn’t work very well without them.

    • That’s exactly right, Eliza, the “world just doesn’t work very well without” vultures. That IS good news about the return of the condors to the redwoods, thanks for your contribution. Sending a big smile your way, Eliza, and thanks.

  3. You are so right about the vultures. This would be an awful smelly world without them. When I clean fish on the dock, if I don’t cleanup the vultures are there in 10 or 15 minutes ready to help.

  4. Thank you for such an educational post with fabulous photos for illustrations! I see Turkey Vultures circling above our area, and other parts of New Jersey, almost every day, but never looked into their background.

    • I am happy I could share a bit of the background of vultures for you, Hien, and am especially appreciative that you were interested. My warm thanks for your visit.

  5. Here in Northern NV they’re not here year round so it’s changed my “take them granted” attitude to a whole new place! I’m grateful for them and the job they do of cleaning up our planet too.

    How exciting that you’ve been able to see the Condor! I’ve been out to Big Sur several times hoping to see one soaring above, but never saw one. I did see a nest with an egg in it years and years ago through a Ranger’s scope at the summit of a hike I did in Pinnacles NP. That’s as close as I’ve even been to seeing one. I hope their numbers come back eventually like the Eagles are. It’s just so slow getting there.
    Have a lovely week-end!

    • I enjoyed hearing about your vulture appreciation in NV, Deborah. Yes, it was exciting to see the condors. It was not easy, either. Athena was driving 101 on a cliff edge while I was searching out the moon roof and then I hollered for her to pull over, which was nearly impossible, but she did and we both flew out of the car and had a few minutes of blissful observing, and she snapped a few photos too. My warmest thanks, Deborah.

  6. I see both Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures quite regularly here in Northern Virginia, but have never seen a nestling like the one in Athena’s delightful photo. I chuckled when I read your description of the evil sound that sweet little bird made. I was intrigued by your account of the hierarchy of scavengers and the fascinating photos from Africa. Even here in the US, I suspect that there is a hierarchy of sorts, with many smaller critters, including insects helping to pick the bones clean. I watched a lot of cowboy movies when I was growing up and internalized the idea that vultures circling overhead meant they had detected something that was dead or dying. Therefore I now involuntarily make some extra movements when I see vultures in the air, so they won’t be tracking me as a potential next meal. 🙂

    • I so enjoyed your comment, Mike. You are fortunate in VA to get both the turkey and black vultures. I’ve enjoyed that treat while birding in GA too. The vultures in Africa are on a different level, with so many wild mammals, and I’m glad you enjoyed the photos and narrative. I liked your cowboy movie anecdote too. Gave me a smile. Cheers, my friend, and many thanks.

  7. They do a thankless job. I think they are much underappreciated. I know they are not my favourite birds, but if we didn’t have carrion eaters, we would soon wish we did. As always, your post was very informative and Athena’s photos are great.

  8. So much to pick over in this post, Jet! Vultures aren’t the prettiest bird, but they have such an essential role to play. Looking forward to learning more about #90…
    And as others here have mentioned, it’s a grand sight watching them ride the thermals.
    Thanks, Jet, to you and Athena for the words and photos. Heading off now, feeling peckish, must be some leftovers around here…

    • Your comment had me smiling, pc, with the post you “picked over” and heading off to find some leftovers. Watching turkey vultures ride the thermals is indeed great fun. The way you can tell it is a TV from far away is they are the only raptor that teeters when they soar. Watch the raptors in the sky for a little awhile, and you’ll know what I mean. Truly a joy, pc, thank you.

  9. Vultures are critical to the food chain and definitely help keep things cleaned up out here in the country. Not likely to be asked to the HS bird prom, but they have an important purpose as you rightly pointed out. I am looking forward to when I can witness a California in the wild – 10′ wingspan – wow. Always like to see what number they are sporting on the shots I do get to see – never seen 90 before. Admittedly, it is a bit unnerving when looking up during a long training run and see a kettle of the Turkey’s circling directly over my head … always wonder if they know something I don’t. Great topic – one most people often overlook… or run from ha!

    • It’s a unique experience to look up a numbered bird on the internet, and I am grateful for the condor program and look forward to sharing more about #90. It’s fascinating to read about their histories. In the meantime, I’m glad you enjoyed the vulture post, Brian, and appreciated your visit.

  10. Vultures don’t have the most appealing job to do, from our perspective, but somebody/something has to do it and, really, the various species, studied & reflected, as you, Jet, and Athena, have so graciously done, are majestic & fascinating birds. Thank you for that!

    • Yes, the vultures often get a bad rap. But I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Walt, and found them fascinating. A big thanks for your warm words and visit.

    • Lovely to have you stop by, Janet, thank you. It’s gratifying to know I have shared some new knowledge on the vultures with you today. Time for me to take a look at what you’ve been up to…yay.

  11. Pingback: Vultures are Cool — Jet Eliot – Echoes in the Mist

  12. I went out onto the back deck one day and one of them was perched on the railings. I couldn’t believe his wingspan – it something you have to see to believe but he seemed gentle enough.

    • wow, that’s a big bird to have perched on your deck, Jan. I’m guessing it stopped you in your tracks. I liked hearing about it, thank you, and thanks for your lovely visit today.

  13. I also enjoy watching the vultures’ aerial acrobatics. Such graceful dips and swoops! I’ve been fortunate to see California condors, including a very close up view in Zion.

    My favorite vulture tale is from a bridge near the coast of Costa Rica where tourist were tossing raw chicken to the crocodiles below. One vulture (bold or dumb remained to be seen), would raise its wings to look more intimidating as it ventured toward a chunk of chicken, hoping to bluff a crocodile out of its snack. Pretty entertaining, though I don’t condone the chicken toss.

    • I am happy you have had a close-up view of a California condor, Eilene. How exciting. That would be a delight to see in Zion, you were indeed fortunate. Feeding chicken to the crocodiles is a bad idea and it confuses all the wildlife (including the vultures) and can lead to dangerous crocodile reactions. Not to be condoned, as you say. Thanks for your visit, Eilene, much appreciated.

      • I never got to see a condor soaring like in Athena’s photo. That is special.

        I heard that the tourists used to dangle chickens with fishing rods for the crocs until the government banned it. Let’s hope they’ve banned the chicken tossing, too, by now.

  14. I have mentioned through the years blogging about birds, the vultures of any type are the ones that have great part of the balance that exists in Ecology with Nature. these large birds are key for success. When the pesticides entered in Africa to protect crops, after a while the fields were saturated with the lethal chemicals and vultures began to appear dead all over. These started a chain of events that became a crisis. When the heavy rains came there was a great amount of animals that usually perished by floods every year at that time, Since the vultures were dying because the poison, the carrion was back-up and the whole ecological system was failing, it affected all animals and humans at the same time. It was discovered the cause, the pesticides were banned and the flocks of vultures reproduced and the whole problem was solved. The cycle of the disposal of carrion is such a large problem in Nature…Vultures are the heroes! Do you know the vultures are immune to all bacteria? There are many studies, trying to find how vultures can save the world humanity creating a vaccine for humans that would give us the same protection.
    I loved your post, my friend. Thanks! 🙂

    • Wonderful to get your comment, H.J. Poisoning vultures, intentional or not, is a big problem in our environment, and it is sad to see so many vulture species teetering toward extinction. But these countries go without vultures and then they see what a benefit the vultures are and the balance they bring, as you say. Lovely to have you stop by, H.J., and always a joy. Thanks so much.

    • Yes, turkey vultures form large groups when roosting. When they’re flying and foraging we don’t see them in their social groups. I’m glad you enjoyed the vulture post, Val, and always appreciate your visits.

  15. Vultures gather in great numbers (maybe 40 or 50 birds) several times a year nearby, in the old trees and many on the ground too, (south Florida). You wouldn’t know they were even there unless you looked up and saw them, they are so quite. Its an unusual event around here and does not happen but maybe two times each year. Would you happen to know why they would do this, Jet?

    • Hi Eddie, Good question about the vultures. I remember some time ago when you had a header photo on your blog with a long line of black birds. You labelled them vultures but they were starlings. So I am thinking that, in answer to your question, those birds you see in great numbers are actually starlings, who do gather in enormous numbers, sometimes in thousands. Maybe next time you see the birds in question, get a close-up look with binoculars or a camera, and see if you can see some of the markings and features of the birds. I could be wrong, but my guess is your birds are starlings. Here’s a link with some info: Always a pleasure, my friend, and thank you for your question.

      • The birds that gathered next door were definitely vultures. I’ve seen these same birds eating carrion on the roads.
        Thank you very for your kind response Jet.

  16. Lovely photos and fascinating facts. I knew they are important scavengers and love to watch them float the air thermals. I liked your description of the hierarchy of feasting by the animals in Africa. That would be interesting to see. Thanks Jet and Athena.

  17. I loved this post Jet. I find vultures to be so fascinating and I realize not everyone thinks so, but I find them beautiful. Watching them fly is such a breathtaking experience and they serve such a necessary and important function. Thanks ever so much for great writing and of course, the wonderful photos. Looking forward to the story about #90!

    • Dear Sylvia, your comment was a true joy, thank you. I, too, find the vultures’ flying to be breathtaking. And I’m glad I piqued your attention with Condor #90. It was a fun post to compose and I had lovely photos to work with. My thanks for your visit, and best wishes.

  18. Nature isn’t always pretty and neither are vultures. But they are essential and pretty doesn’t matter even a tiny bit to nature. We have turkey vultures aplenty here although they do migrate with the seasons. Everything in nature is part of a large cycle and only we humans are not very efficient parts of that. But I am sure that’s not news to you, Jet. Sometimes we don’t deserve this wonderful planet. Excellent post on one of nature’s less appreciated creatures. It is heartening that the California Condor is making a recovery.

    • I enjoyed your comment, Steve, and completely agree. “Nature isn’t always pretty and neither are vultures” sums things up nicely. I liked hearing about the migrating TVs in MA, too. Yes, it is heartening that the condors are making a recovery. It’s a slow one, but it’s amazing. The project has generated lots of controversy, primarily due to the cost, but it has been an astounding program that generations of people have worked really hard to achieve, and I, like you, appreciate it. Wonderful to hear from you, thank you.

    • I so enjoyed your excitement with the condor live cams and recent release, Gunta. I did not know about it until I published this post and another blogger informed me. It’s so great. I really enjoyed the live cams, thank you. It is currently 6:30 in the morning and I did see the condors, in their cage, and it was snowing. They were cold and not moving. How very very exciting, this new leap. Before I write the condor post about #90 I will read up more on this new Yurok Tribe development, how fun. Thanks so much for your terrific comment. Cheers, my friend. Maybe someday they will cruise through your Siskiyous.

      • I shall look forward to your condor post!!! I’m told the Yurok release site is relatively close to us. We could easily be within their rather expansive territory/range. 🤩 I’ll have to get better at differentiating them from turkey vultures (our TVs seem to be seasonal). I tried to spot the Condors during a visit to Big Sur, but failed. Though there was that sighting of a juvenile perched under a bridge in Arizona…. that was a thrill.
        I woke up to an accumulation of graupel here, but the sun came out and it’s gone. I should be out there chasing CLOUDS!!!! 😉

      • There are two easy ways to differentiate the TVs from the California Condors. First, condors are easily twice, maybe three times bigger than a TV. And also, the color patterns are exactly the opposite when viewing the bird from below, as you can see from the photos I showed here. How exciting for you and E, Gunta, I hope they soar over you two frequently.

      • Thanks for the hints. I need to go back for a closer look at the color patterns… and work at imprinting them in my overflowing memory cells!!! 🤔

    • Thanks Donna, great to hear from you. We were indeed very thrilled to see the California condor pair and Athena was amazingly quick to get that shot. So glad you were wowed by it.

  19. Thanks for the interesting post and photos. Vultures can be quite imposing and fascinating to watch around a carcass. I love seeing them ride the thermals. They are beautiful in flight.

    • I would imagine you have seen a lot of vultures on carcasses, Carol, being an African resident. They are indeed “imposing and fascinating.” I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for stopping by.

  20. It’s always humbling to learn from you, Jet, about creatures that I often wrinkle my nose at… vultures, bats, armadillos, etc. I know the vultures are vital, I love to watch them soaring… and now I’ll try to remember that their unattractive, featherless heads aid them in cleaning up toxic carcasses, for which I am grateful. I’m grateful for you and Athena, too. :>)

    • What a wonderful and kind comment, thank you, dear Nan. It is great to know that I have changed your mind on some of the very important creatures we have here on earth. I figure the less misunderstood some of these creatures are, the more chance they have to escape human destruction. You just made my day and it’s only dawn. Thank you, Nan.

  21. We saw condors a couple of weeks ago in Zion National Park, Jet. Unfortunately they were too far away to get good photos. But there were several together. Having been raised in California, I grew up admiring buzzards and their incredible ability to soar and discover dead meat (dinner) at great distances. The most handsome vulture I have come across are the black vultures of Florida and the south. You don’t want to leave unprotected food around them however. They are both ferocious and voracious when it comes to carving up an unsuspecting camper’s food supply. –Curt

  22. We have both the Black Vultures and the Turkey Vultures here, although I most often see the Black Vultures. Learning to distinguish them in flight was great fun, but what I really enjoy is coming across them taking their ease in a dead tree. There’s nothing quite like the sight of a vulture having an after-dinner nap! I saw more this past weekend than I’ve seen in quite some time. I was visiting a friend in the hill country, and more than a few deer were dead on the side of the road. No problem — the vultures were there, too, doing their work — and doing it well.

    • Oh boy, did I ever enjoy hearing about your black vultures, Linda. As they do not reside in Calif., black vultures only present when I’ve been traveling. I haven’t had the opportunities to see them a lot like I do with TVs. I loved your words describing “them taking ease in a dead tree” and the abundance of them of late is a great thing. Lovely contribution, my friend, thank you.

  23. Very cool! One day, I’ll lay on a sheet in the yard to watch them soar. That will be too stressful for Murph. They are mesmerizing to me. Thanks for the extra knowledge of them .

    • Thank you Dawn Renee. Watching the vultures soar is mesmerizing to me, too. Now you know what to do on an upsetting day. Thanks so much for your visit, Dawn Renee.

  24. A very nice post with impressive photos. I was in Bulgaria three years ago to watch vultures there. Back then we managed to photograph three different species. A unique experience that you will never forget.
    Kind regards Werner

      • When I searched for “Among Vultures” on your site, the search could not be fulfilled. It said, “Nichts gefunden.” Werner, can you send me the link to your vulture series? If not, it’s okay. Many thanks.

      • I’ll try it . I have no idea how to do it yet, I’ll find out.
        I’ll send you the date when the article was published here, there are three other articles on this trip. Published on: 14.1.2020 normally that helps.

      • Thanks very much, Werner, for providing me with the link to your magnificent Bulgaria trip. I visited each of the four parts, and was dazzled by your bird photos, especially the vultures which were truly terrific.

      • I saw your vulture photos and thought you might be interested in my photos too. I thought right, you liked it. I’m still working on the travelogue of our trip to the Danube Delta. it was quite an exciting journey. Two operations on my spine threw me off track, but slowly it’s getting better and we’re doing smaller tours again.
        See you then and best regards Werner

  25. Fascinating post, Jet. Your concise and informative narrative is so enjoyable to read and Athena’s photos are tremendous. You illustrated well how important they are in the food chain. Very cool seeing the Condor in Big Sur! 😀

    • Lovely to have you stop by, Jane. We were really thrilled to see the Calif. condors in Big Sur. It was quite an adventure finally finding them. I’m glad you appreciate the vultures, and I appreciated your kind words.

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