Family Cathartidae: Texan Garbage Disposals | Houston’s Zoo No. 03

My dear friends and readers love songbirds and such,

But VULTURES, with their bloody bare heads, not so much.

Folks seem to hate vultures, the whole paraphyly. It’s nonsense to me that they aren’t thought of highly.

It could be their habits don’t strike you as right. Might be their appearances fill you with fright.

Whatever the reason, be it fear or disgust, you look at a vulture and you’re filled with distrust.

I’m here to lay misconceptions aside,

And see all your thoughts of these birds rectified.

To defend every type I’d be up far too late,

So I’ll just focus in on our own Lone Star State.

Alright. I’m through rhyming. Apologies to the late great Dr. Seuss, whose 114th birthday would have been this month.

Luckily, I’m not trying to make a career out of children’s poetry. Instead, I’m here to talk to you about vultures. There are twenty-two species of vultures in the world, divided into two groups. The old world vultures are found in Africa, Asia, and Europe, and the new world vultures are native Americans.

Surprisingly, the two types of vultures are not closely related. Old world vultures are very closely related to eagles and hawks (all three belong to family Accipitridae), while new world vultures belong to a different family (Cathartidae) altogether.

The Griffon Vulture is an example of an old world vulture.

Although there are a number of great vultures out there (the lammergeier and the condor each deserving of articles all their own), I thought it would be prudent to present the native Texas vultures you see every day in a new, more flattering light.

You may not realize it, you may not even think about it, but you can hardly step outside on a clear day in Texas without seeing a vulture on the wing. They are easily one of the most ubiquitous birds in our state. As such, it is only proper for a true Texan to educate himself on which buzzard’s which.

There are two species native to Texas: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the black vulture (Coragyps atratus). Both are fairly widespread across both Americas, where they feed on a wide variety of carrion. While they are feeding, or otherwise occupied on the ground, they are easy to tell apart. Turkey vultures are the ones with the trademark red head and dark brown feathers. Black vultures, on the other wing, are—rather unsurprisingly—black, with gray heads.Unfortunately, even in rural Texas, you are much more likely to see vultures in flight than on the ground. Our friendly neighborhood vultures can often soar at altitudes exceeding 1300 meters (4200 feet), but even at much lower altitudes, identification by head color can be tricky.

There are a few key field marks to look for when trying to ID a flying vulture. If it isn’t backlit, you should be able to see white patches on the underside of its wings. On the turkey vulture, the white runs all the way from the wing tip, along the rear edge of the wing, to the body. This is in contrast with the black vulture, whose white patches are much smaller and only on the outer tips of the wings, resembling large white gloves from underneath.

Even if you can’t make out the coloration, though, it is easy to tell the two apart by body shape alone. The key is to look at the tail. Turkey vultures have long tails that extend far beyond the back edge of the wings, while black vultures have short, square tails that barely protrude past the wings.Now that you’ve met the vultures of Texas, it’s finally time to argue their case. The simple, unfortunate truth is, vultures have awful press. Their close association with roadside carrion has given them a bad image to the more squeamish among us, and made them an stereotypical harbinger of death and disease.

This is simply a Cum Hoc fallacy. Just because you often see vultures hanging around rotting flesh does not mean they are covered in disease themselves, or even that they’re particularly dirty animals. Vultures are incredibly fastidious creatures, and carefully clean every part if their body that they can reach. The only exception is their head, which they obviously cannot reach. This is the reason behind that bald head. It stays pretty clean because there are no feathers for the meat to stick to.As for all the bacteria that gather on a vulture’s decomposing free lunch, the birds have an answer for that, too. A built-in antibiotic. Their digestive systems have a special concoction of acids with such a low pH that it quickly destroys anthrax, cholera, botulism, and many other harmful bacteria.

Disease-ridden, my hat!

Now, try to imagine what the world would look like without vultures. If that’s not enough, try to imagine what the world would smell like without vultures. Now you’re on the trolley. These magnificent, misunderstood birds are nature’s clean-up crew, and possess many adaptations that make them the best at their job. From their keen sense of smell (unique among raptors) to their weak-gripped talons (who needs strong claws when you don’t actually have to kill anything), they are masters of disposal. Some of them even eat the bones.

We owe a lot to the humble vultures. While yes, they do defecate on their own legs to keep cool, and yes, they use super-acidic projectile vomit as a defense mechanism, they ultimately make up for it by making the world a much less disgusting place.

Before I admit that I’ve run out of words, I’ll invite you to go out and watch for these birds.

Test yourself on ID’s as they circle above, And show every buzzard a little more love.

For questions, suggestions, or more stuff to know, please leave all your thinks in the thought box below.

I’ll be back with facts, and perhaps diagrams

Next week, when I’ll be just…

As I ever am.

Photos courtesy of The Smithsonian Institution, Circle Ranch Texas, Texas Hill Country, Buffalo Bill Center of the West, and Yours Truly

Categories: Feature

2 replies »

  1. Who eats the vultures? Are some creatures omnipotent? BILL BOARDS ads for your eco consious compaign. I’ll start a fund. (where do I send the contribution?)


    • Not many things can eat vultures, Tim. At least, not in Texas. Large birds of prey like owls and eagles may occasionally go after a young vulture—from what I hear—and raccoons and opossums will eat their eggs, but a healthy adult vulture is pretty hard to prey on. When they do die, though, I imagine other vultures are on the scene to tidy up.
      I’m not sure to what campaign you’re referring, but I’m glad you’re getting interested in nature and the issues surrounding it. That’s pretty much why I’m here. Honestly, the best contribution you can make is to share this information with your friends. Let ‘em know what you learned, and if they’re curious for more, send them here, to The Mountaineer Post, and I’ll be happy to oblige.


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