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.