Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Extant Theropod Appreciation #1: The Turkey Vulture

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).

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) in Morro Bay, CA
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.


  1. I like vultures too. They have a strange grace that becomes apparent if you watch them for a while. And if anyone needs proof of their importance to the ecosystem, they only need to look at what's happened on the Indian subcontinent since 90% of its vultures were poisoned by diclofenac.

  2. Vultures are great. I wish there were more of them around in Vancouver. (They're there, says all the bird guides, but I've never seen a wild one there. Just eagles.) Who couldn't love a bird that pukes at predators?

  3. Laura - Thanks for bringing that up, I was unaware. Crazy.

  4. They're my neighbors here in Florida. One posed for a photo op near my home back in 2006:
    Later that year, I took this video of over a dozen congregating on and around an office building in Tampa:


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