The Value of Vultures

Sporting a face only a mother could love, turkey vultures thanklessly serve nature well

These birds will never win a pageant, but beauty is a subjective thing.

With their naked red heads and a prodigious sense of smell that can draw them to death more than a mile away, turkey vultures are perhaps understandably not the most popular of bird species. Documented personal traits such as regurgitating on intruders, or defecating on their own feet to reduce body heat, do not help to improve their image. Hovering and hopping like hunchbacks around carcasses on the ground, and often appearing wobbly in flight, they nevertheless are perfectly adapted for vital clean-up duties in nature — a most admirable, if not classically beautiful, function indeed. Look closely at the end of the video, in fact, and you’ll notice the dead seal pup that pulled these vultures down out of the sky.

All this aside, I cannot help but be impressed whenever I see them unfurl those massive 6-foot wingspans (presumably to capture ambient solar radiation and thus regulate body temperature). Though history has labeled them “harbingers of death,” and a group of them is called a “wake,” I strive to be a bit less morbid. If given the opportunity, I’d like to think I would be every bit as eager to hang out with turkey vultures as, for instance, unquestionably gorgeous cedar waxwings. Yes, indeed … I’d like to think I would.


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