I’ll be the first one to admit that the vulture is not a favorite bird.
Let’s face it; there’s not a lot of love for the vulture. The two types we encounter here in Florida – the black vulture and the turkey vulture – are protected species, not endangered. But even if they were endangered, I very much doubt you’d see their likeness on t-shirts, or knickknacks, or license plates with “save the vulture” slogans.
Vultures don’t typically grace the covers of nature magazines and you’d be hard-pressed to find a sports team calling itself “the mighty vultures” (although I’d be willing to bet someone, somewhere has used the name just to sound ominous). Vultures are symbolically associated with death, although – interestingly – the ancient Egyptians associated them with motherhood because of the way vultures fiercely protect their young.
In our culture, however, vultures are not so revered. Vultures have two strikes against them. First, they don’t conform to our ideal of beauty when it comes to birds. Vultures tend to have wrinkly, bald heads, and some types are nearly all black and appear hunchbacked. (There are some vultures – especially the ‘Old World Vultures’ native to Europe, Africa, and Asia – that are arguably more attractive). Second, they eat roadkill (or things that just plain died). Therefore, people find them disgusting.
But, if you think about it, vultures actually do us a service. Vultures clean up our streets. If it weren’t for vultures and other scavengers, we’d have to spend more taxpayer dollars on roadkill cleanup services. They actually keep our cities and streets cleaner and more sanitary. And vultures are actually clean animals since the strong acids in their stomachs kill bacteria and disease (even anthrax). Therefore, what comes out is cleaner than what goes in the vulture.
“Vultures are very important to our environment. Without them, there would be dead animal bodies lying all over,” said Raptor Clinic Technician/Volunteer Coordinator Beth Lott who works with the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida. “I like to think of them as nature’s cleanup crew.”
Because vultures are so disliked, they are actually more likely to suffer injuries deliberately inflicted on them by humans, according to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. The bird rehab facility often receives vultures that have been hit by cars or otherwise attacked. Just like they would an injured eagle, osprey, or hawk, the Audubon center takes them in, nurses them back to health, and releases them, if possible.
“People do injure these birds often – sometimes on purpose,” said Lott. “Vultures are often hit by cars, mainly [because] they eat roadkill, and they are shot fairly frequently as well. We get roughly 40 vultures a year, consisting mainly of black vultures, but we get turkey vultures too.”
Lott says vultures have been given a bad rap. “I am not sure if the Audubon Magazine has ever featured vultures on their cover. I have seen a few knickknacks of vultures, but they are few and far between,” says Lott. Yet vultures are actually one of the most intelligent birds the Audubon Center works with. “They have to be wily,” says Lott.
So the next time you see a vulture at the zoo or even by the side of the road, try to consider its good qualities – its intelligence, its nurturing side, its usefulness as the garbage collectors of our streets. And here’s a thought: vultures could be awfully helpful in the event of a zombie apocalypse.