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  • March 27th, 2020

NATURE’S UNDERTAKER

By Joel M. Vance

 

 

It was a revelatory moment, like when you discover that a raw oyster on the half shell, complemented by a dab of horseradish and accompanied by sip of crispy white wine, is light years finer than the disgusting blob of indefinable food you thought it was.

 

I topped a hill and there in the middle-of-the-road ahead of me was a vulture snacking on a road killed vulture— evidence that even wildlife citizens enjoy an exotic and nontraditional meal once in a while. Not that I’m advocating we replace oysters with carrion, but I am advocating that we learn to appreciate even the most apparently disgusting creatures in nature. Disregarding the revolting sight of a vulture snacking on cousin Beaky Buzzard, I confess to having been a fan of the buzzard, a.k.a. turkey vulture, for many years.

 

Given the current panic over the looming threat of coronavirus, perhaps there is somewhere in the digestive tract of a turkey buzzard chemistry that would send coronavirus back to the hidden crevices from whence it came. After all, buzzards can digest botulinum, anthrax and other toxins, even a smidgen of which, kill a human being in a heartbeat.

 

Buzzards are properly called vultures.  We probably could live without them (people do), but life would be a lot more messy.  They are the manure bug of the skies, performing a vital function…but most people don’t want to know about it.

 

Turkey vultures are as familiar in North American skies in the summer as the fleecy cumulus clouds with which they keep company.  Vultures have mastered the art of soaring and playing amid the invisible currents of air. Their airborne antics would make any glider pilot gnash his teeth in frustration when in buzzard company, for he is doomed to rejoin the earth long before they must.  Only on the ground is the turkey vulture awkward.

 

Nothing is more overcome with panicky clumsiness than a vulture when surprised by a fast-approaching automobile while it snacks on some creature which dueled with Michelin Radials and lost.  Of all the birds, vultures offer the most clear and demonstrable service to humanity.  They eat offal that otherwise could putrefy and become a human health danger.

 

A prime mystery of the animal world is how a vulture escapes the microbes that laid low his dinner, but escape it they do.  Experiments have shown that vultures have dined on enough anthrax or botulinum to have killed susceptible animals ten times over…with absolutely no ill effects, not even heartburn.

 

Yet, for all the invulnerability of the buzzardial digestive tract, I  find few ongoing studies of why.  Don’t you want to know why toxins so terrible they make warmongers blanch and terrorists thrill go through vultures like ice cream through a child? Most research into buzzard immunity to toxins dates no further back than about 2015.  Whatever neutralizing agent lurks within the convoluted colon of a buzzard must be a powerful one indeed and it’s somehow comfortingly ironic to think that perhaps the cure for cancer (or of coronavirus) can be found in the digestive processes of a bird scorned by some, ignored by most and which lives on rotted meat.

 

I found a couple of studies of how vultures routinely digest bacteria that would eliminate a human being in seconds, but both basically concluded that they still don’t know how the birds do it. Michael Roggenbuck, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen said, “our results show there has been strong adaptation in vultures when it comes to dealing with the toxic bacteria they digest.” Well yeah, we already knew that. But how.  Another researcher said “the avian microbiome is terra incognita.” In simpler and more common terms, “beats the hell out of us.”

 

One study showed vultures easily outdid coyotes and crows in manufacturing antibodies to botulinum toxins.  Another focused on enteric pathogens, including salmonella in the intestines of turkey vultures.  “Very little data exist on the intestinal microflora of carrion-feeding birds in general and ‘C. aura’ (turkey vulture).”

 

The highly acidic stomach chemicals in vultures routinely destroy viruses that (does the name coronavirus immediately spring to mind?) are deadly for human beings. Obviously, given the current Covid 19 pandemic, we are decades if not centuries behind in researching what vultures can do and the human stomach cannot.

 

Not only are we behind in vulture digestive research, but the vulture has not been given its due as a cool bird. Well, not totally: there once existed, though tenuously, the Buzzard Council of America, founded in 1979 by a group of famous wildlife artists and outdoor enthusiasts.  The BCA grew by word of mouth until it numbered about a thousand members (I was a proud one).  Each year, America’s leading wildlife artists flipped a coin and the loser painted a buzzard stamp print.  The organization even held an annual picnic to celebrate vultures and, incidentally, indulge in what I deduce was hefty amounts of adult beverages—no doubt to spur the creative juices for the chosen stamp artist.

 

The first stamp print (in 1980) was a turkey vulture, the most common of North American vultures, painted by David Maass, the second a black vulture painted by Robert Abbett.  The third print was of a group of African vultures enjoying a snack on a defunct critter of the veldt and the fourth (and final) print featured the endangered California condor.  The Council became so popular that it began to dominate the careers of the artists and they shelved the organization until buzzard enthusiasm cooled a bit.  It has never, sadly, resurfaced.

 

A vulture’s cleanup duties are not altruistic.  They do it to survive.  Though members of the order Falconiformes, which includes hawks and eagles, buzzards rarely take live prey and really aren’t equipped to do it.  They’re slow and have feet more like chickens than like taloned raptors.  One writer described turkey vultures as “degenerate raptorial birds,” which could have been either a biological or social judgment.  The family name is Cathartidae which comes from the Greek word “kathartes” meaning “cleanser.”

 

Here is where I have to differentiate between the turkey vulture and the black vulture. Turkey vultures equal good while black vultures have proved, especially recently, to be as black hearted as they are colored exteriorly. To put it gruesomely, they are accused of and proved to be fond of pecking the eyes out of small, helpless farm animals like calves or lambs until the defenseless animal dies, after which they eat it. Blame global warming which has encouraged black vultures to migrate from South America northward to the American Midwest. Black vultures are protected by the long-standing migratory bird treaty, but can be shot if you can prove that they are fatally mugging baby livestock.

 

Do buzzards stink?

 

One historic ornithologist, Elliott Coues, thought that the vulture not only stank horribly because of what it ate, but had an intrinsic stench that so deadened its olfactory sense that it didn’t mind diving headfirst into putrefying meat; however, I have been in petting range of a zoo buzzard and could detect no aroma at all, good or bad.  An ornithologist studying a nest found its young inhabitants aromatically inoffensive until they started eating carrion.  As some wise person said, “You are what you eat.”       Vultures have little sense of proportion and will dine on a juicy chunk of long-defunct mammal until they are too heavy to fly.  Then they sit around like overstuffed middle income television watchers until they digest enough to be able to fly.

 

There is almost nothing a vulture won’t eat if it’s dead.  Leonard Lee Rue III said he’d never seen a vulture dining on another vulture; although as I said I once did and that scene has lingered with me as the epitome of something.  I haven’t decided what and try not to think about it.  However, one observer watched two turkey vultures snack on a defunct skunk and reported that they left the scent gland untouched.  Apparently even a vulture has its limits.

 

At close range a vulture of any species is of marginal beauty.  Its head is raw- skinned red and its feathers a dusty brown.  Most turkey vultures have the slightly frayed appearance of a seedy undertaker in some American frontier town whose customers generally wind up in the Boot Hill cemetery. The featherless head allows the buzzard to root around in gore without needing an industrial strength bird napkin to clean up.

 

The turkey vulture has a six-foot wingspan which enables it to stay aloft almost endlessly on thermals rising from the heating earth.  Because nature’s elevators don’t start working until the sun gains authority, buzzards rarely soar before 9 a.m.  They often sit on damp mornings with wings outstretched, perhaps drying them.

 

Vulture parents are a mixture of good and bad.  They build no nest; the female lays two (sometimes one, sometimes three) eggs on the ground, often in a cave, crevice or hollow tree. But both parents incubate the eggs for 30 to 40 days and both feed the young by regurgitation.  While it may not appeal to you nor me, pre-digested food (notice the euphemism, like “pre-owned car”) works wonders on young vultures.  They’re ready for their maiden flight in eight to ten weeks.  They’re not bad looking as birds go–covered with a fleecy white down.  But that gives way to the bleak adult plumage.

 

Regurgitation is a neat trick (so to speak) often used by turkey vultures when threatened.  Vomiting may lessen their payload so they can make a quicker getaway or it may serve the same purpose as a skunk’s fusillade. If that doesn’t work, a vulture may collapse and appear dead.  No one knows if this is a purposeful escape maneuver or the result of psychological overload. If you aren’t sufficiently grossed out, here’s another factoid— one source says vultures defecate on their feet to cool them off while another says that the acidic defecation kills bacteria (although considering that they’re gulping it down at the other end, the mind boggles).

 

One playful ornithologist trapped several vultures and the birds, after realizing they couldn’t escape, all keeled over, whereupon the birdman decorated them with streamers, paper collars and colorful anklets, then freed them.  Barring accident (power lines are one threat, autos that surprise engorged birds another) a vulture can live a long, long time.  There are records of vultures living more than 100 years.

 

Ornithological literature does not abound with information on turkey vultures.  Most ornithologists seem slightly discomfited to be dealing with the birds and race through their meager life history as if rushing guests past a messy room.

 

Some writers are positively antagonistic to vultures.  The authors of Natural History of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America Edward Forbush and John May, said, “your Buzzard is a cowardly fowl and intends to take good care of his precious skin.  They often gather thus, not only about dead animals, but also about the sick or disabled when death seems imminent.  If the death of the victim seems assured, they approach their prey.  Over what follows, let us draw the veil.”

 

Ornithologists seem to feel honor bound to say something about vultures, though they’d rather be rhapsodizing about nightingales, so they salt their prose with apologies and disclaimers, then invariably speak of the bird’s grace on the wing.  It’s as if a historian were to write in graphic detail about the atrocities of Attila the Hun, then conclude, “But he was good to his mother.”

 

It’s true that a buzzard is not beautiful–but surely there must be a homelier bird somewhere.  Consider the superbly functional design: featherless head and neck, the better to shed gore.  Beak as sharp as poultry shears.  Raspy tongue to extract delicate morsels with the adroitness of a seafood gourmet picking at a lobster, feathered ruff a biological bib.

 

I find vultures much maligned, fascinating and likable.  They mind their own business, harm no one, perform a useful function without complaint and under working conditions that would have union workers on violent strike.  They’re poetry in motion and they seem to have a bit more brain than the average bird.

 

The one buzzard I was privileged to pet was a captive, fed on hamburger and, for all I know, chips and soft drinks as well as a refreshing concoction of anthrax and botulism bacteria.  It was curious, clever and friendly.  No buzzard ever started a war, though if there is an Ultimate War they will be in attendance after the gods “draw the veil over what follows.”

 

One thing is certain, if a pandemic ever wipes out the last Adam and Eve, standing over the carcasses will be a vulture and a coyote squabbling over the tidbits. Were buzzards ever to fade from the skies our eyes would be the poorer.  Were they to change their diets, our health would be the poorer.

Up the buzzard!

-30-

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2 Comments

  1. Larry Yamnitz

    March 28th, 2020 at 5:14 am

    Reply

    Great story, Joel.

    I do disagree about their smell. I recall one Spring Turkey Season about 4 decades ago when I was a conservation agent in Texas County. Ike Ashby and I were at the Houston check station when someone stepped into the Forestry shop to report a road kill. Expecting to see a deer, I went out to see what they had. As soon as I stepped out of the door the smell was horrific. Their “roadkill” was said Turkey Vulture. Evidently it was dining in a skunk at the side of the road when the driver startled it. The bird jumped just in time to meet the windshield with enough force its head was lodged in said windshield. What a mess! Strangely, the driver wasn’t interim keeping the bird for mounting, as most do for owls and hawks hit on the road (it would have been illegal to do so, by the way).

    Thanks again!

    • joelvance

      March 28th, 2020 at 7:39 pm

      Reply

      Well, they are what they eat. Hope you and yours are doing well and staying out of any virus laden breezes



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