Why we should love vultures

Do you think vultures are creepy? Kinda gross? Well, I'm going to convince you that vultures are actually pretty cool characters, worthy of our love - or at least our deepest admiration and appreciation.

Black Vultures

Vultures aren't the prettiest birds by most standards. And, since their favorite food is carrion, just thinking about vultures' eating habits makes most people feel a little queasy. However, their willingness to devour rotting flesh gives vultures a very important role in our ecosystem.

There are 22 species of vultures around the world. Sixteen of those species are endangered or threatened, mostly due to habitat destruction and poisoning. In North America, black vultures and turkey vultures are going strong - lucky for us!

Black and turkey vultures stand about 2 1/2 feet tall with a wingspan of 5-6 feet. In spite of their size, they only weigh about 5 pounds. That helps them soar high in the air on updrafts while they look for food. Turkey vultures can easily be differentiated from black vultures by their beautiful red head.

Vultures love to roost on dead trees. One way to quickly  differentiate turkey vultures from black vultures is by their beautiful red head.

Vultures love to roost on dead trees. One way to quickly differentiate turkey vultures from black vultures is by their beautiful red head.

Vultures assume a spread-winged stance to warm their body, dry their wings, or bake off bacteria in the sun.

Vultures assume a spread-winged stance to warm their body, dry their wings, or bake off bacteria in the sun.

Vultures roost in large groups, often in dead trees. (The P.R. Department should let them know this only contributes to their creepy image.) A group of roosting vultures is called a committee; when they are in flight, they are called a kettle; and when they are gathered on a carcass, they are called a wake.

Now that you know the basics, here are some important reasons we should all love vultures:

Vultures are nature's clean-up crew. Vultures keep our world free of unwanted carcasses that could become a breeding ground for disease. If vultures didn't get rid of the carcasses for us, much of that work would be left to maggots and bacteria, and that truly would be gross.

Vultures are evolutionary marvels. Over the eons, vultures' digestive tracts have evolved to handle bacteria and toxins that would kill most animals. Extra-strong stomach acid kills most of the deadly bacteria. It also appears vultures are genetically coded to tolerate some of the bacteria, which actually thrive in their intestines.

Turkey vultures have an excellent sense of smell. Most birds don't have a sense of smell at all, and have to rely on their eyes to find food. Turkey vultures are a rare exception to this, thanks to an over-developed olfactory bulb in their brain. They also have the largest nostrils of the North American vultures. Because they don't have a nasal septum, lots of air (and the alluring scent of rotting flesh) can flow right through their bill to let the vulture know there's a carcass nearby. Black vultures have to find their food visually.

Turkey vultures don't have a nasal septum, so you can see right through their bill. This lets lots of air flow through, along with the scent of decaying flesh.

Turkey vultures don't have a nasal septum, so you can see right through their bill. This lets lots of air flow through, along with the scent of decaying flesh.

Vultures are collaborative. Because of their amazing sense of smell, turkey vultures often find a carcass first. Black vultures follow turkey vultures to dinner. What does the turkey vulture get out of this? Because they have weaker bills, turkey vultures sometimes need help from their friends getting through the tough hide of a dead animal. Everybody wins!

Bald is beautiful. I know at least some of you will agree with that! However, in the case of vultures, baldness goes beyond aesthetics. It's functional. Their baldness enables them to stick their heads deep into a carcass without worrying about their meal getting stuck in their feathers and causing an infection.

Vultures are loving parents. Both parents take responsibility for incubating the eggs and feeding the nestlings delicious, regurgitated food. They even decorate the area around the nest with brightly colored bits of plastic or bottle caps.


If you have now decided you love vultures so much that you'd like to capture one as a pet, I have disappointing news. It is illegal to take, kill or possess vultures in the United States, punishable by a fine up to $15,000 or imprisonment up to six months.

The next time you see vultures devouring some roadkill, be sure to stop and thank them for their service to the ecosystem. But don't get too close. Did I mention they regurgitate if they feel threatened?


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The Andean condor is not just the largest vulture species - it is the largest flying bird in the world, with a wingspan of over 10 feet. We met this particular bird at a sanctuary in Peru.

The Andean condor is not just the largest vulture species - it is the largest flying bird in the world, with a wingspan of over 10 feet. We met this particular bird at a sanctuary in Peru.

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