Fascinating Facts About Vultures

Vultures often get a bad rap because they eat decaying flesh, have a creepy appearance, and seem to soar overhead for hours just waiting for animals to die. But the truth is that vultures are nature’s clean-up crew and are a very important part of the earth’s ecological system.

There are many reasons why vultures don’t deserve the reputation they have. After reading this article, we’re sure that your opinion about them will drastically change. While we can’t deny that some of their habits are weird (and we mean really weird), you’re sure to have a new appreciation for these scavengers.

Their Necks And Heads Are Bare To Keep Them Clean

bare head and neck
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

When you look at a vulture, you will notice that its head and neck is mostly bare. Their bodies are built to accommodate their lifestyle. They need to stay clean when they eat rotten meat; otherwise, parasites and bacteria would cling to their bodies and feathers, which could result in an infection.

Their bald heads and necks allow them to stay healthier when they’re eating food that would easily cause problems for other animals who don’t have the same protective qualities.

A Vulture Is A Unique Type Of Raptor

raptors
SYLVAIN THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images
SYLVAIN THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images

While vultures are raptors, they are not birds of prey. They only eat carrion (decaying flesh) and prefer animals that have been dead for between two to four days. Just like humans like to marinate their meat, vultures are okay with a carcass rotting just a little bit before they eat it for lunch.

Vultures do not have strong, grasping feet and talons like other raptors because they adapted to the type of food they eat. Their penchant for carrion has made them quite a bit different from other raptors that hunt for prey.

There Are 23 Vulture Species And Many Are Endangered Or Threatened

vulture species
Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The earth is home to 23 different types of vultures. There is at least one type on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Vultures are quite adaptable and can live in a variety of habitats, including city suburbs. However, 14 species are currently either threatened or endangered.

Vultures are susceptible to a range of threats, including poisoning, car accidents, and electrocution. As a result, they’ve encountered major population losses over the past few years. If conservation efforts aren’t continually carried out, these vulnerable birds could disappear forever.

They Prevent The Spread Of Disease

carrion
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

As we mentioned previously, vultures are carnivores who dine exclusively on carrion. While they prefer their meat to be just a few days old, they are also known to eat meat that’s so rotten it can be dangerous for other animals to consume. They aren’t particularly picky, and they’ll eat just about any kind of dead meat.

As a result, vultures play an essential, ecological role in their environment. They prevent disease from spreading from old, rotting dead animals.

They Can Smell Food From Miles Away

vultures in tree
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us / Contributor, Getty Images
Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us / Contributor, Getty Images

Depending on the species, vultures have particularly good eyes and a great sense of smell that allow them to find food. They can smell the gasses from dead animals from as far as five miles away, even if the carcass is located beneath a forest’s canopy. As a result, many vultures cover large territories and often take flight to find their food.

When vultures poke their heads into a carcass, sometimes bits of meat or fat gets into the bony structure that protects their nostrils. Fortunately, they can pick out those bits and pieces with their talons.

A Group Of Vultures Is Called A Committee, Venue, Or Volt

group of vultures
Georg Ismar/picture alliance via Getty Images
Georg Ismar/picture alliance via Getty Images

Many raptors are solitary animals, while vultures are much more social and have no problem feeding, flying and roosting with their own kind. A group of vultures is called a committee, venue, or volt. When you see several vultures in flight, they are known as a kettle.

A bunch of vultures feeding together on one carcass is known as a wake. While there are several names for groups of vultures engaging in various tasks, there is one common thread — they all look a little spooky when they travel, eat, or chill out in a pack.

They Don’t Have Voice Boxes, So They’re Pretty Quiet

turkey vulture
myLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
myLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

You have probably never heard a turkey vulture make a sound. They do not sing like songbirds or even cackle or scream. The reason why they’re so quiet is because New World vultures don’t have voice boxes. While this limits their abilities to make noise, it doesn’t mean they’re completely silent.

Some species such as turkey vultures can grunt and hiss. They may do this when they’re alarmed or in uncomfortable situations. But in general, you can’t rely on them making any sounds in order to announce their presence.

They Are Sun Worshipers

basking in sun
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Humans aren’t the only creatures that like to lay out in the sun. Turkey vultures and other species also enjoy soaking up the rays. It’s not unusual to find them spreading their wings when they’re in the sunshine. This is known as the horaltic pose. They do it for a variety of reasons.

One may be because their body temperature drops overnight, and this pose helps them warm up. It’s also a helpful way to dry their feathers after they bathe. In addition, it may bake off the bacteria they accumulate after eating carrion.

They Pee On Their Legs For A Very Good Reason

vulture urine
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Turkey vultures and other species relieve themselves by peeing down their legs. It’s known as urohydrosis, and it serves a very important purpose. When it’s really hot outside, their urine cools them off.

When the fluids in their waste evaporates, the blood vessels in their feet are subsequently cooled. This then cools the bird’s overall temperature. Experts also think the high acidity of their pee destroys the bacteria on their legs, which they can pick up from carrion.

They Vomit For Protection

vulture vomit
MyLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
MyLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Vultures protect themselves from predators by vomiting. Sources vary on whether they projectile vomit or just cough up semi-digested food. They do this when they feel threatened, and since the food they’re throwing up is rotten and stinky, it’s a pretty good defense mechanism.

Interestingly, some of the regurgitated food is then eaten by the predator (gross!). Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles have been observed consuming the vomit of turkey vultures. In addition, some vultures vomit to lose weight in order to gain flight and escape.

Turkey Buzzards Are Related To Storks

colorful vulture
MyLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
MyLoupe/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

You may have heard a turkey vulture referred to as a buzzard, but that’s not what they are. Buzzards are hawks of the genus Buteo, and they largely reside in the British Isles. In the United States, it’s not uncommon for turkey vultures to be called buzzards. The term was likely used by early settlers.

The settlers saw the vultures and mistook them for buzzards. The vultures of the New World actually have no relation to buzzards. Instead, they’re more closely related to storks, who also use urohydrosis to cool their bodies.

‘Nature’s Clean-Up Crew’ Consists Of Two Types: New World And Old World Vultures

clean up crew
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

New World vultures are found in North and South American from Argentina to Canada (and also the Caribbean). The Cathartidae family includes seven species of vultures and condors. New World vultures have an excellent sense of smell, and they are closely related to storks and herons.

Old World vultures are found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They are part of the Accipitridae family and don’t have as strong a sense of smell. They find food with their eyes and are more closely related to eagles, kites, harriers, buzzards, and hawks.

They Don’t Circle Around Animals Waiting For Them To Die

vultures and gator
Tim Graham/Getty Images
Tim Graham/Getty Images

Despite popular belief, vultures do not hover around sick and injured animals waiting for them to die so they can immediately pounce on the carcass. They are unable to sense when an animal is about to expire. They tend to fly around to look for food, but they can’t predict death.

When a vulture locates a food by smell, sight, or sound, they quickly approach the carcass so they get there before other predators take advantage of the meal.

They Sometimes Rely On Other Animals When A Carcass Is Too Stiff To Tear Apart

vulture landing
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A vulture’s legs are not very strong, and their feet are equipped with blunt talons, so they don’t use them in the same manner as birds of prey do. What vultures do have, however, are powerful bills. This is important because the bills help them when they eat.

Sometimes a carcass can be very stiff and hard to open. A vulture may not be able to rip and tear it apart to get access to the meat inside, so it often waits for another predator to do the job. That’s why it’s common to see vultures hanging out on a carcass with other carrion-eating animals.

They (Usually) Don’t Attack Healthy Livestock

attacking livestock
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Vultures have no interest in healthy livestock, but that doesn’t stop farmers and ranchers from believing the birds have an interest in their cows, sheep, and other animals. It’s not unheard of for vultures to feed on dead livestock as well as the afterbirth or stillborn animals, but this is rare.

They prefer dead animals but occasionally will prey on sick or wounded prey. But this is only in very unusual circumstances when food is scarce.

The Andean Condor Is A Vulture With An Enormous Wingspan

andean condor
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The Andean Condor is a South American bird that belongs to the New World vulture family Cathartidae. It’s the national animal of Colombia and is found in South America. It has a wingspan of over 10 feet and is considered the largest flying bird in the world. They can weigh as much as 33 pounds and stand nearly four feet tall.

They aren’t the best flyers because of their weight, but they can soar as high as 5,500 meters. Males have yellow eyes, and females have red eyes. They have a life expectancy of 50 years, but some have lived up to 75 years in captivity.

Vultures May One Day Aid In Criminal Investigations

vultures can helps law enforcement officers
Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

As we’ve already discussed, vultures have a variety of special senses and abilities that make them very unique. As a result, scientists have been studying these characteristics closely to see if they can be used by law enforcement to help locate bodies in criminal investigations.

The belief is that studying how a vulture finds a body and how quickly it eats the body will help with forensic analysis. Since other animals such as dogs are used in a similar capacity, it doesn’t seem that odd for a vulture to be used in investigations.

They Have Their Own Holiday

International Vulture Day celebrant
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The first Saturday of September is recognized as International Vulture Awareness Day. Zoos, aviaries, nature preserves, and bird refugees around the world celebrate this day to educate the public about the importance of vultures and how valuable they are to the earth’s ecological system.

These zoos and other groups create fun and entertaining activities for children and their families to learn about vultures, their habitats, and how they can help protect them from the hazards they face on a daily basis.

The Biggest Threat To The California Condor, A New World Vulture, Is Lead Ammunition

california condor
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

At one point in the 20th century, there were only 27 California condors known to exist worldwide. Fortunately, wildlife experts felt the need to save them, and in 1987 took steps to preserve them and diversify their gene pool. Today, the population has increased to about 300 in the wild.

They eat large carcasses of deer, cattle, sheep, and sometimes whales. The problem is when hunters use ammunition. Spent lead ammunition is the number-one cause of death for California condors. As a result, efforts are underway to persuade hunters to switch to non-lead ammunition.

Vultures Are Frequently Portrayed As Dimwitted In Cartoons

buzzard
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

Beaky Buzzard was first introduced in 1942 in the cartoon “Bugs Bunny Gets the Bold.” Beaky has been featured in several Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. He is a turkey vulture with black feathers on his body and a white tuft around his throat. His neck and head are bald.

Beaky is not very smart and has a drawled speech. He is depicted with a goofy grin on his face and partially-closed eyes. He made an appearance in the 1996 movie Space-Jam as a team player and has been in some recent Looney Tunes films as well. After reading this article, do you think Beaky Buzzard is representative of real vultures?