I've been meaning to feature birds more often here - as they are the living descendants of theropod dinosaurs - and I've decided to start a new series called Extant Theropod Appreciation. First up: one of my favorites, Cathartes aura. The Turkey Vulture.
Vultures get a bad rap. If I mention that I've paused in my travels to watch a couple of them eat a possum that lost a fight with the Michelin man, I get an odd look. If I express my favorable attitude to one taking up residence in my yard, I receive a shifty glance. They're gnarly, ugly, cowardly eaters of stinky carcasses, after all. Think of how they're portrayed in the media. In westerns, they're harbingers of doom, hanging back and waiting for the hero to slough off the burden of life so they can pick the flesh from his bones. In Looney Tunes cartoons, they're just dopey (and erroneously saddled with the name buzzard).
Photo by Mike Baird, via Flickr.
For me, there are few nobler winged beasts. They provide a vital service, ridding the environment of dead flesh, limiting the spread of disease. And for that task, they are finely honed: heads free of feathers that would get funky when shoved into the guts of bloated carrion; a keen sense of smell; a soaring flight that conserves energy while looking for a meal; and strongly acidic urine used to cool the legs and kill bacteria on them. Sure, you can list any animal's adaptations and hold them up as evidence of its virtue. But in the case of the Turkey Vulture, they also demonstrate that it's not merely "settling" for a diminished profession in comparison to the eagles and hawks we celebrate so often. Vultures are perfectly specialized for their role.
I'm so glad I'm not alone in this.