Saturday, September 5, 2009

my favourite scavengers: blogging for vultures

I had no idea that today was International Vulture Awareness Day until yesterday, when posts and tweets started cropping up. To be honest, I had no idea it existed at all. But I thought, why not? These poor maligned creatures need some love, and I'm happy to join in the chorus of people who want to raise the profile of this unique group of birds, which contains several species around the world. I've always been rather fond of them, and I'm glad to note that there's an entire community of people out there who are just as if not more fond of them than I.

Vultures are possibly so maligned because they eat carrion, and are therefore reviled with the same strength that other carrion eaters (ie. crows) tend to be. But that's ridiculous. If we didn't have vultures we'd be up to our necks in rotting roadkill, and I, for one, am grateful that someone will eat that stuff. They're an integral part of the world's ecosystems and they are often completely overlooked if not outright discriminated against. The major issue that is being raised by IVAD today is the plight of vultures in Asia, which are being poisoned by the vetrinary drug Diclofenac, which is used to treat cattle -- if the cattle die in the fields, the vultures eat them (as they are wont to do) but the drug builds up in the vulture's system and eventually causes death.

Here in Canada we have one regularly occurring species, the turkey vulture. We also occasionally get black vultures popping up as far north as Point Pelee, or Toronto -- but that's a rarity and excuse for celebration and frantic scrabbling among Ontarian twitchers. We're lucky (and the vultures are lucky) because turkey vultures are doing quite well here, even expanding their range further into Canada.

Turkey vultures were one of the very first birds that I was able to reliably recognize, and so even if I didn't think they were cool, I would love them just for that. I also find them to be one of the easier birds to help kids identify. Turkey vultures make a "v" with their wings when they're soaring: "v" for vulture. Big and black, hardly ever flapping, with silvery primaries and a bald red head. A lot of people think they're ugly, but I think they have a wonderful if unique beauty about them. Their little nekkid heads with their big eyes are quite compelling.

I'm told, by people who will know, that turkey vultures are one of the brighter species of large birds and we can tell this because they are social creatures. They like to hang out with other vultures. One of the coolest things I've ever seen was a group of turkey vultures hiding from a rainstorm underneath the awning of a little hydro building out in the middle of a field. They were all hunched over, and clearly vying for the best and driest spots. I'm also told that turkey vultures are exceedingly tidy birds, very vain, constantly preening. Which is counterintuitive for a lot of people, given the vulture's diet.

Other cool turkey vulture facts:
  • they are one of the very few birds with a sense of smell, and it's quite acute in the area of rotting meat
  • their head is "bald" (actually, turkey vultures have a very fine downy layer over their heads, nearly impossible to see unless very close to them) because vultures like to get their heads right into their meals, and feathers would a) get in the way and b) get stinky and likely full of germs and parasites
  • they are related to herons
  • they migrate, but are one of the first birds back here in Ontario in the spring, and one of the later ones to leave

I'd love to meet a turkey vulture some day. We've attempted to see them closer once, by throwing a raw hamburger on the lawn at the cottage just to see if the vultures circling over would come down to investigate. I think the hamburger was too fresh, though, although it had gone off by our standards. Or perhaps there wasn't enough hamburger. Vultures are big birds. Um. So, yes. There's your weird fact about me for the day: I tried unsuccessfully to set up a vulture feeder.

Spread the vulture love, everyone, and happy International Vulture Awareness Day!

Other people I follow who love vultures around the world:
Steve Creek
Bird Canada
Behind the Bins


gwendolen said...

Heehee, I laughed out loud at your attempt to set up a vulture restaurant. Wonderful post! :-D

kiirstin said...

I'm glad you enjoyed! Thanks for dropping by.

Katy said...

Great post kiirstin!
Imagined you sitting in your garden closely observing a rotten
And yes...Vultures are beautiful birds !! ;-)

kiirstin said...

Ah, see, the problem Katy -- I get bored easily. And rotten hamburgers, while I'm sure they're hives of very dramatic microscopic activity... just aren't that exciting through bins from a distance. ;)

So after observing for a while, I'd drift away to reading... and then remember what I was doing, and watch the hamburger some more... then I'd chase after a butterfly that floated by... then back to the hamburger... then lunch... then hamburger-viewing...

Christine said...

I am afraid that I am not a fan of turkey vultures, as they nearly killed me last fall. They were eating roadkill around the curve in the road, and when I showed up they all took off--straight into my windshield! Terrifying!

kiirstin said...

Um, yes. I can see how that would be rather alarming. As above, they are not small birds, and I imagine one could make a hell of a dent in a car...

Anonymous said...

Ok, I had to laugh at your feeder attempt. I did the same thing years ago. Didn't work for me either. What you need is roadkill or something really dead. And some place to put it really far from the house or else the smell would be enough to choke on.

kiirstin said...

Excellent. I shall be on the lookout! But only if I have time to take it up to the cottage, because I'm pretty sure my city neighbours wouldn't appreciate my vulture feeder.

(Also, glad to know I'm not the only one who has tried this!)