Why I Love "Ugly" Vultures
Throughout the past two years, I have come to adore vultures. It seems that most people do not understand how somebody could love such "ugly" birds. Whenever I want to talk about them, I can often count on funny looks, deafening silence or a quick subject change. People call them nasty, stinky, disease-ridden, and other untrue names.
Why are people so turned off by these important birds? Is it because they eat carrion? Bald eagles, hawks, coyotes, and many other carnivores eat carrion as well. Is it because vultures are associated with death? Bats, crows and ravens also have that association (Edgar Allen Poe, anyone?). While many people aren't fans of those animals, there are plenty of folks out there who marvel at the intelligence of crows and ravens and put up bat houses. Do people dislike vultures because they are what most people consider "ugly?" If you watch a vulture in flight, they are the farthest thing from ugly. Also, I believe that we shouldn't judge an animal by appearance, just as we shouldn't judge our fellow humans by appearance.
Turkey Vulture Totem
My interest in vultures all started with a totem-like experience. In late 2009, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma. In the spring of 2010, things were looking very grim for him, and I started struggling with the idea of mortality. One day while in the midst of this struggle, I was browsing the internet and had a strange desire to Google "ugly birds." I did so, and of course the turkey vulture was on every list of ugly birds that came up. I found myself fascinated by them rather than repulsed, and I wanted to learn more about them.
I spent the next few days reading all I could find about turkey vultures, looking at pictures of them, and watching YouTube videos. That weekend, while outside doing some work on the backyard, I started thinking about how funny it was that turkey vultures - birds commonly associated with death - had caught my interest when I was in the middle of dealing with mortality. It reminded me of Native American totem animals. Shortly after the thought entered my head, I looked to the sky and saw a large dark bird circling around over a nearby wooded area. I watched as the bird soared closer, and as he passed overhead, I saw he was a turkey vulture. Talk about chills! The vulture circled around me a few times, and then returned to the woods. Was it just a curious turkey vulture that coincidentally decided to fly over right at that moment, or was it something more spiritual? I don't know.
Whether or not there is anything spiritual about totem animals, I believe that certain animals resonate and connect with us on a psychological level. I did some research about the vulture totem and found out that these birds symbolize many different things: unconventionalism, efficient use of energy, tolerance, patience, purification, and as expected, learning to accept the cycle of life and death.
I did feel better after turkey vultures came into my life. That's not to say that all sadness or anxiety over the idea of death suddenly melted away, but whenever the thoughts come up, I think of the vulture, and that helps me cope.
The Vulture's Role in the Ecosystem
The turkey vulture and his cousins, such as the California condor, play a very important role. Vultures are often called "nature's clean-up crew" because they are on the earth to help keep things clean. They are scavengers, which means they eat animals that are already dead rather than hunt and kill.
When an animal dies, the flesh quickly begins to decompose. The cells break down and bacteria and fungi take over, which leads to that rotting stench, maggots, flies and potential spread of disease. The entire process can take several weeks. However, if a vulture happens to find the animal, he'll speed things up by eating and digesting the meat instead. My favorite way to think of it is that the vulture takes death and turns it into life.
One might say, "Oh, but what about the poop? That has to spread disease!" Many people are surprised to hear that turkey vulture poop is actually antiseptic.It's due to their highly acidic digestive systems that allow them to eat bacteria-laden food without getting sick. They can even kill off anthrax.
Other Cool Facts About Vultures
- Turkey vultures are expert gliders. They ride thermals (columns of rising air) and can soar for hours without flapping their wings.
- In areas where multiple species of vultures live, you'll often find them all sharing a meal from the same carcass.
- One way vultures communicate is by quickly changing the color of their facial skin.
- Bits of meat can stick to feathers, so a vulture's bald head helps the bird stay clean.
- The turkey vulture has an exceptionally strong sense of smell, which is a rarity among birds.
- The Ruppell's vulture has been known to fly at altitudes over 36,000 feet.
- The Egyptian vulture is one of the few birds that uses tools. They use rocks to hammer open ostrich eggs and twigs to roll up pieces of wool for nest building.