The Majestic Janitor

What comes to mind when you think about vultures?  Most people probably think they are disgusting, dirty creatures and don’t give them much of a second thought.  I used to be that way too, but not anymore.

Look at a soaring Turkey Vulture, struggling in the winds to keep steady, rarely flapping their wings, rarely making any noise.  The Zone-tailed Hawk is impressed enough to pretend to be one by imitating its shaky flight pattern.  OK- maybe it does this because the vulture is not a threat to any living things, thus making it possible for the hawk to get very close to its prey by tricking them.

Male and female Turkey Vultures stay together long-term.  Though they nest alone, they usually spend time in groups.  Above, a group is roosting together in this old, dead tree.

As they come and go from the roosting tree they display their vivid whites, blacks, and reds.  Turkey Vultures are large birds.  They have wingspans of about 5-1/2 feet and weigh 4 pounds, which is actually heavy for a bird.

Vultures eat dead things- and basically nothing else.  They stab their sharp beaks into dead animals and rip off pieces of meat.  They help each other out by standing on opposite sides of a particularly tough piece of meat and play tug-of-war to break it into smaller pieces.  They stick their ENTIRE heads into carcasses and rip out the organs inside.  That is not for the faint of heart.  They have mostly naked heads which helps them keep their heads clean while…err…diving in.

But if they didn’t clean up these rotting carcasses, who would?  Someone has to do it, and their way is a lot quicker than leaving it for bugs, or worms, or some other small creatures.  They find their food by using their incredible sense of smell- incredible especially for the bird world where it is thought that most birds can’t smell very well at all.  Because of this great odor detection they can find food in some hard-to-find places like the woods.

So next time I look up and see this sight above my house (this photo was taken by my neighbor Al), first I’ll probably wonder what in the world died in the woods.  But then I’ll say a “thank you” to these majestic janitors and go back inside resting assured that they won’t quit until they have finished the job.

SOURCE- National Audubon Society’s The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior was used to find much of the above information.

  1. Thanks for reminding us that there is a lot of beauty in ugly!

    Once in Arizona, I came upon a dying Turkey Vulture in a low mesquite tree. I got to within a couple feet. The stench was unbelievable. Then it vomited and the slimy green puke almost landed on me. It was fascinating to see the detail of the head and gnarly beak up close.

  2. I’ve always liked vultures, for many of the reasons you mentioned – they are beautiful in flight and at a distance, they are well designed for what they do, and they fill a necessary niche.

  3. I love vultures too. It is hard to find a bird better adapted to its lifestyle. They are so good at finding carcasses with their sense of smell that Black Vultures often follow them to find carrion.

    Those nice close-ups look like immature TVs, still having some black on their heads.

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