Pondering Vultures

Recently I watched a large bird swooping across the vista visible from my sunporch, admiring its wingspan and flight angles. Recognizing the shape of its flight feathers as those of vultures and condors, I thought about recent posts on Instagram where people commented on amazing hawk or eagle sightings. It hit me that no one ever posts admiringly about having spotted a vulture, and that bothered me.

We even use “vulture” to deprecate a person who takes from others in a mean way, I guess due to the feeling of dread when they’re seen circling or descending as a group, making people think of death.

Actually, vultures have an amazing role in our ecosystems! They’re scavengers, meaning they eat dead animals, yes. They rarely attack healthy ones, but may kill the wounded or sick. As scavengers, vultures are of great value, especially in hot regions. Vulture stomach acid is exceptionally corrosive, allowing them to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with botulinum toxin, hog cholera bacteria, and anthrax bacteria that would be lethal to other scavengers, and remove these bacteria from the environment.

New World vultures often vomit when threatened or approached. Contrary to some accounts, they do not projectile vomit on their attacker in defense, but to lighten their stomach load for take-off, since they tend to gorge on carrion, then rest, lethargic, for long periods of time. The vomited meal residue also may distract a predator, allowing the bird to escape.

New World vultures also urinate down their legs; the uric acid kills bacteria accumulated from walking through carcasses, and also acts as evaporative cooling.

You might agree with me that these birds are pretty amazing. Unfortunately, numbers have dropped drastically in some regions due to poisons in the environment. The drop in populations has led to increases in rabid animals and disease transmission in general. Poachers even poison animals like elephants to disguise their killings, which then poisons vultures by the thousands. Most vulture species are endangered. Some countries are taking steps to reverse this.

In ancient times, vultures were appreciated as extraordinary beings. In old Egyptian art, Nekhbet, a mythological goddess, was depicted as a vulture. Divine iconography of a griffon vulture has been identified. Great Royal Wives wore vulture crowns as a symbol of protection. They depicted the eternal cycle of death and rebirth for their ability to transform the “death” they fed on into life. Vultures also appear in Mesoamerican myths. In some regions of China, India, Mongolia, and Bhutan, in Vajrayana Buddhist cultures, vultures play a significant role in sky burials.

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