June 28, 2016

Are you Cultured on Vultures?

By Danica Melone, Marketing Intern

“Wooowwww, they ARE so ugly!” a young guest bellows from below me. I have to admit I agree that the shiny red heads of turkey vultures, with their bacterial warts and wrinkles, are not the most enchanting species in the raptor family. Watching the Science Center’s ambassador turkey vultures, I quickly began considering the semiotics of this species; what is it that these birds symbolize for us? Most would probably say death or dying; some may identify with these birds as the executioner henchmen, Trigger and Nutsy, from Disney’s Robin Hood; while perhaps a select few, including myself, strive to see these birds as a massively important player in the circle of life. (Cue the Lion King music!) Mostly, the idea of a turkey vulture, a bird that eats other dead animals, conjures up images and emotions so taboo to us humans that it seems fitting to push them aside as just an ugly, bald bird. As ugly as they are, I began to consider their undoubted importance to our ecosystem, and ecosystems globally. Why is it we should care at all about turkey vultures in New Hampshire? Past research has shown that turkey vultures have such an advanced sense of smell, that they are characteristic for locating and consuming their meals when they are typically 2-3 days dead. That being said, turkey vultures use their keen smelling to decipher the degree of freshness, so that they “rarely visit [dead animals] when they are four (or more) days along and in a state of full-blown putrefaction” (Snyder & Snyder 28.) In contrast, a newly deceased animal emits a much less powerful odor and therefore turkey vultures are less likely to find them.

Powerfully intense stomach acids in the vultures work to break down the food so that bacteria and other poisons may be carefully expelled, while the fresher parts of the animal are utilized for energy. Unfortunately, their selective scope for food has been increasingly impeded since the industrial revolution.

“In a pre-technological world, the major poisons found in carcasses were of microbial origin- poisons which [vultures] could develop resistance by their highly developed immune systems. The modern industrial world has thrown an array of new poisons at these species, which at least in the case of the California condor* appear to have been a major cause of population decline” (Snyder & Snyder 28-29.)

Interestingly, despite their incredible immunities to synthetic and natural poisons, turkey vultures have a surprising vulnerability to lead poisoning; a growing concern in the state of New Hampshire for another ornithological species: the common loon. Additionally, many people think that turkey vultures are vessels for disease that can kill livestock, but in fact their insanely adept biological functions eliminate these viruses and diseases while in the stomach of the vulture. Turkey vultures are earnest scavengers, consuming carrion or other animal carcasses like roadkill, and finally returning those deceased creatures back into the circle of life. These birds are a species equipped with extraordinary biological functions that allow them to sniff out a deceased animal and utilize its remains as a food source, despite bacteria and parasites. If you want to consider how this truly is a beautiful representation of the circle of life; the circle ends with the vulture defecating which ultimately is returning that once-living animal back into the ecosystem as soil. Thus, “caring about” turkey vultures doesn’t have to be as trivial as you think; it is, rather, an opportunity to identify with an ornithological species in a positive manner. Though they are ugly, and carry out some truly ugly functions in our ecosystem, turkey vultures are a key species in reducing the growth and spread of disease, helping to eliminate roadkill, and aiding in the final and most important step of the circle of life: returning back to the Earth.

*Did you know that California condors have the largest wingspan of all vultures?

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