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Friday, November 6, 2009

The vultures are circling but it's not what you think

Fellow children of the 50s and 60s, we've been duped!  All those TV shows we watched where Palladin or Festus or someone was crawling across the desert after the bad guys had pulled some underhanded trick were giving us misinformation.  I'm not talking about the "water in the heart of the cactus" deal.  I fully expect to be able to open a cactus when I'm dying of thirst in the desert and pull out what appears to be a baggy of fresh water.  No, I'm talking about the vultures.  You know, they show the vultures flying around in circles above our hero just waiting for him to die.  The implication being that they could smell death and the their sense of smell was so acute that, once they started to circle, it meant sure death.  Well, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where I'm volunteering,  is now home to 2 new turkey vultures.  Since we are expected to be able to pass on a little info about the aquariums residents to visitors, the "Bird Department" put on a little enrichment session the other night.  Here are some of the things I learned about vultures:

Our vultures were rescued from a teenager in the midwest who took the chicks out of a nest.  This is, of course, quite illegal and once his folks found out about it, they called the authorities who called a raptor rescue group.  The chicks had already been imprinted by their exposure to humans and so, could never be returned to the wild as they lack the necessary survival skills.  The Aquarium is their new permanent home.

They are brother and sister named Ichabod and Olive and are about 18 months old.  Turkey vultures in captivity live 25-30 years.

They cannot smell impending death.  They can, however, smell dead stuff up to a mile away.  They are one of only two species of birds that can smell.  Their "noses" are built in such a way that they can also tell from which direction the smell is coming.  When you see them circling in the air, they are simply riding the updrafts, looking for food (things that have already dies, not Marshall Dillon on his last legs).  They also can be just playing or gliding around because it's fun.

They are nature's cleaners.  They can eat diseased animals and, because of the strength of their stomach acids will discharge non-diseased poop. Their urine has a high strength uric acid component and they urinate on their legs to kill the pathogens that might be present due to standing in dead carcasses.  Of course, they probably don't know they're doing this.  They just know the pee feels nice and cool on their legs and feet.

They've been known to gorge themselves when the opportunity affords.  To the point where they're too heavy to take flight right away.  They can, however, puke up what they ate to lighten their loads if necessary.  They also puke on themselves if they get too stressed.  When you come across some roadkill with a bunch of vultures lunching on it, slow down!  These guys are not crows and can't take off as quickly to avoid getting smacked as crows can.  And you don't want a 6 lb. vulture with a 6' wingspan coming through your windshield.

The Cherokee Nation calls the "Peace Eagles" because they are as big as eagles but never kill anything.  Given a choice, they prefer fresher rather than older dead meat and prefer dead vegetarians to dead carnivores.

They're family-oriented: live together and share a roost tree; monogamous; and will share a carcass with each other.

Have been recorded flying between 15 and 45 miles per hour.

A group of vultures is called a "venue".  A large group of flying vultures is called a "kettle".

Why does an aquarium have vultures?  Because, although technically not shore birds or even sea birds, they do live around the coast and are frequently spotted on the beach dining on dead seagulls so they're part of the overall aquatic/estuarial environment.  And besides, we had a space where a previous Plover display was.  The Plovers didn't work out very well.

So, turkey vultures are my new favorite bird. Well, not for eating.  That honor goes to the actual turkey.


Bethany said...

Very interesting! And I now have a mental black-and-white reel of Festus dragging his body across the desert looking for a cactus to save him. Sigh... I love Gunsmoke. Is it still on?

LittleCunningPlan.com said...

When Mike and I were newly married, we lived in Del Rio, TX and regularly took forays into the desert. One day we rescued an injured turkey vulture. He promply threw up on us, but we did get a wildlife biologist rescue person to take care of him. They are fascinating animals and don't get enough respect for the job they do, like so many beings in this world. I have respect for them, but I can do without the vulture vomit.