Written by: Karlee May, Digital Media Coordinator
Walk along the ridge on Rattlesnake Point and you may see the powerful, broad wings of the Turkey Vulture born aloft by thermal drafts. The ubiquitous Turkey Vulture is close to our hearts at Conservation Halton: they are literally the symbol of our organization. Their flights over the Escarpment takes ones’ breath away. Across the globe, vultures are unfairly maligned. Yes, they feast on carrion–dead bodies. They are scavengers, not killers, and for whatever reason the pursuit of the hunt is held up as a ‘noble’ characteristic of animals. Yes, the Turkey Vultures pee on themselves. And, yes, they vomit the contents of their stomachs in self defense. These bodily functions, albeit unattractive and off-putting, are unique adaptations that have poised vultures as the janitors of the world. : it’s tough work to pick and clean at rotten and maggoty remains decomposing in the open–harbringers of disease. Vultures don’t spread disease; vultures consume disease for us.
Why do Turkey Vultures pee on their legs? They bathe by peeing! Their urine is very acidic and acts like a sanitizer to clean and cool their legs. Cleanliness is important to vultures. Turkey Vultures are bald so decomposing flesh doesn’t stick to feathers when they eat. A vulture maintains a sparkling visage when dining out–he is a gentile dining companion. Additionally it is difficult to track Turkey Vultures for study because the acidity of their urine. The acid corrodes trackers bound to their legs.
Why do Turkey Vultures vomit in self defense? Does it come from fear? The answer is threefold. First of all the smell of vulture vomit is repugnant. The stench overpowers some predators. Furthermore, the regurgitated innards served up are an offering of a hot meal: it’s better to lose your lunch than to lose your life. Lastly, by relieving itself of a full belly, the Turkey Vulture becomes lighter. A lighter body mass means that the Turkey Vulture will quickly flee from danger.
In the midst of danger, or injury, Turkey Vultures help each other. Turkey Vultures are social animals. If a Turkey Vulture is injured, their family will care for them by bringing food. Turkey Vultures take care of their fledglings for a longer period of time than expected: it’s not altruism, it’s just how they think.
Our friend Casey the Turkey Vulture came to us in 1999. Casey was found sitting on a lawn in a semi-residential area of New Hamburg. When found, he was very thin and dehydrated. He was also unable to fly due to an old, healed fracture of his right humerus bone. We believe that Casey was injured earlier in the year and the wing healed leaving him unable to fly. It is very possible that he was hit by a car as Turkey Vultures are often seen eating road kill by the side of the road. Due to the fact that Turkey Vultures are social and live in family groups, it is possible that his family fed him by regurgitating for him. However, when they migrated south for the winter, he was left behind. Unable to fly, he wandered around looking for food. Due to his young age and relaxed temperament, the staff at Mountsberg decided to keep him as an education bird.
For more information on our Raptor of Month program, please click here.