Recently, I came across a TED Talk which captured my eye entitled “Why I Love Vultures”. Munir Virani, born and raised in Kenya, shares his research about the catastrophic crash of vulture populations across Asia, as well as his own experiences with local African vulture population decline. He shares the importance of vultures historically, mythologically, and culturally, and closes with what you can do to help vultures in Asia and Africa. His passion inspired me to learn more about our local vultures.
Across the world, there are 23 species of vultures, of which 14 are threatened or endangered. An example of convergent evolution, New World vultures (Americas and Caribbean) and Old World vultures (Europe, Africa, and Asia) evolved separately to fill a similar ecological niche of consuming carrion. New world vultures have an acute sense of smell, lack a voice box, and can run like a chicken. Old world vultures build nests, hop side to side, and locate their food with sight.
Despite the myth vultures circle dying animals, they are powerful fliers and soar as they look (or smell) for food or the sound of other birds feeding. When they do locate a carcass, they approach quickly before other predators find it. Occasionally if a carcasses are scarce, vultures are known to prey on extremely sick, wounded, infirm, or weak prey.
In Texas, we can spot two types of vultures: Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures.
Turkey vultures sport a dark brownish-black body feather, red featherless head, and a short, curved ivory-colored beak. Their adult wingspan range between five and six feet, weighing between two and five pounds. With minimal sexual dimorphism, female and male turkey vultures essentially look the same in color and size.
Black Vultures are very similar to their Turkey Vulture cousins. They too measure five to six feet across and weigh between three-and-a-half and six-and-a-half pounds. Dark gray and wrinkled, their heads and neck are entirely featherless.
Although they are "of least concern" on the conservation list, we can still learn and respect these creatures. Threats that vultures face include toxins and lead found in the carcasses they eat, car collisions from feeding on roadkill, and electrocution from collisions with power lines.
What can you do to protect our vultures? Vultures in the US do not face persecution like others, since they have been placed on the Migratory Bird Protected Species List since 1918 and are hence illegal to take, kill, or possess turkey vultures. However, we can still take action to protect these birds who help take care of our environment.
- Avoid using lead ammunition when possible.
Always retrieve your spent ammunition so birds don't consume it.
Drive slow when nearing roadside birds.
Carry heavy gloves in your car to move roadkill further from speeding vehicles.
Support environmental groups that lobby for better control of hazardous materials such as pesticides and herbicides.
Encourage local power companies to increase power line visibility with beacons or accents that help birds avoid collisions.
Support captive bird breeding and rehabilitation programs working with vultures.
Celebrate International Vulture Awareness Day on September 1, 2018.