Eaters of the Dead

Imagine the world without vultures, dead and smelly animals rotting on the side of the road.
Imagine the world without vultures, dead and smelly animals rotting on the side of the road.

“They came to a good place,” my daughter Gretchen commented observing two vultures on top of my house. I live in a 55+ community, making her comment particularly mean-spirited, appropriate, and humorous. My friend, Becky D., a photographer, contemplated doing a photo book and naming it Roadkill. It was her husband’s idea, and it was hard for her to swallow the idea that such gruesome photos would appeal to anyone, especially her, a person who continually seeks out the beauty in nature. Vultures are vilified in popular narratives merely because they are not beautiful birds like swans and bluejays. We do the same thing with humans.  A physically pleasing person, even though they contribute little or nothing to others’ lives, gets to climb higher on the ladder of worthiness. That’s short-sighted and unfair.  

Two of the most common vultures in the US are the turkey vulture and black vulture. Both birds are black. Turkey vultures have a pink head, or something close to that and black vultures have a black or gray head. Their heads are nearly featherless thanks to evolution, adaptation to environmental and circumstantial changes. Featherless heads make jamming your head into a carcass a cleaner and easier affair.  Rakel, third daughter, has no wisdom teeth. Not because they were pulled, but because evolution determined she doesn’t need them. Early man’s jaws were larger and more prominent than ours, allotting plenty of room for 32 teeth’s worth of chewing leaves, roots, and raw meat.  

Vultures urinate and defecate on their feet to keep themselves cool. Far greener decision than cranking up the A/C. When disturbed or harassed, they send a vomit sailing 10 feet. The vomit then spreads far and wide and serves as a predator repellent. Guns can’t do that. All this and we get on their case for being ugly?

Driving west on River Run Ave., a street near my Florida home, turkey vultures, one of few bird species able to smell, sat on live oaks staring at the pavement. If you have been up close to one, you know they are huge. Their six-foot wingspan makes flapping their wings problematic, so they soar in drafts (caused by pressure differences in the air). I pull over and watch. They’ve smelled death from an armadillo carcass laying near the curb. Soon, they take off and land quickly, look around and begin the feast by removing the eye sockets, slurping them down. Yum. Yum. Curved talons straining, they make cut-like tears into the skin and pull. Tear and pull never forgetting to listen for intruders, hikers, bikers, or cars. Vultures are the only animals that depend upon death as their food source, and as such, they perform an underrated ecosystem service to clean up and recycle bodies of dead animals. Without them, we’d live with foul-smelling carcasses, larger insect populations, and spreading diseases. What do swans contribute unless you believe in fairy tales? 

Recognizing that a bird should not be judged by its beauty, detectives are turning to Lauren Pharr’s vulture scavenging work at Texas University to determine a time of death for skeletal remains. Pharr explains, “A lot of times at a crime scene when people see a skeletonized body, they think, ‘Wow, this has been here for a really long time undiscovered.’ Oh, no, no, no, no. Vultures accelerate decay. And the skeletonized body could have been there for as little as five days if scavenged by vultures. The failure to account for vulture scavenging can result in forensic scientists inaccurately estimating how long someone has been dead and then searching through the wrong missing person’s files.”

Pharr must first determine if vultures were at the scene. Are the bones a natural decompensation or created by scavenging? She knows vultures like areas where white-tail deer roam and there is access to water. She looks for an intact spinal column and expects to see down feathers scattered in the vicinity. “When we include vultures in forensic studies, we paint a more thorough picture of what happened, when it happened and who it happened to.” It provides the victim and the accused a comprehensive and meticulous investigation.

We say vultures are hideous and homely. They give us the creepies. But it’s time to rethink our view of this bird that cleans up our garbage. They glide with elegance, harming no one. The two vultures on my two-story home deserve that high perch while the bluejays can visit the viburnum bushes or the crepe myrtle at the front of my house.  

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