While not one of the prettiest creatures in Honduras, the turkey vulture makes up for what it lacks in the beauty department by being incredibly useful to mother earth.
Turkey vultures are large, meat-eating birds that excel at soaring. They don’t kill to survive; they survive on things that have been killed. Turkey vultures are the consummate scavenger, cleaning up the countryside one delicious bite at a time.
Being scavengers, turkey vultures have evolved several traits, that, while bizarre and gross, are also fascinating.
Turkey vultures use their highly developed sense of smell and their eyesite to search out something dead to eat. They have bald heads for a reason, too. When vultures are eating, they often stick their head inside whatever carcass they’ve found to reach the meat. A feathery head would capture unwanted pieces, just like when food sticks to my beard, along with all the bacteria such pieces would have. The bald head is a matter of hygiene for vultures.
Turkey vultures don’t have a voice box so they can’t communicate like normal birds. Turkey vultures can only hiss and grunt. They hiss when they feel threatened and grunts are heard from hungry young and adults in courtship. Go the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website to hear a turkey vulture.
Turkey vultures can cover a lot of “ground” without flapping their wings. They gain altitude on pockets of rising warm air and circle across the sky at speeds up to 100 km/h, gradually losing altitude. If they need to rise again, they just hop onto another pocket of rising air and off they go.
Turkey vultures often barf when approached or harassed by predators. When turkey vultures barf, they cough up a lump of meat that can be fresh or semi-digested and foul-smelling. This behaviour may be a means of self protection. No, it’s not to gross-out the would-be predator. Rather, it’s to off-load some weight when the vulture has eaten too much to fly or to distract the predator with a free meal to the vulture can escape to the skies.
The turkey vulture often pees onto its own legs. This isn’t because it’s debauched itself too much on dead carcass, rather it’s a process that serves two important purposes. On warm days, wetting the legs cools the vulture as the pee evaporates. In addition, vulture pee contains strong acids from the vulture’s digestive system, which kills any bacteria that remains on the bird’s legs from stepping in its meal.
Turkey vultures are often seen standing in a spread-winged stance in the morning. This is called the “horaltic pose” and they do this for a reason. Not only does it add to their creepyness as eaters of the dead, it actually helps them warm up their bodies and dry their wings before taking off in the morning.
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