Only slow food will do for this bird.
Faster prey would fly, run or otherwise get away before it became a vulture’s meal. Vultures like their food not just slow, but stopped cold (and dead too.) Fresh kill is good, but, in a pinch, the vulture can eat meat that has begun to rot. Luckily (or, thanks to adaptation), the vulture won’t get sick.
Botulism and other toxins found in rotting meat cause no problems for vultures, which are resistant to them (a trait they share with fellow carnivores like hyenas, who have built up immunities even to anthrax to facilitate their carrion-eating lifestyles.) Another helpful adaptation for vultures is a bald head and neck. The lack of hair allows them to dive headfirst into a carcass and remain (relatively) clean and disease-free — significantly more than a richly plumed bird would — even after a full and messy meal.
Vultures are a most efficient clean-up crew. Their family name, Carthartidae, literally means, “I purify.” By eating carrion, vultures recycle nutrients rapidly — no waiting around for years for microbes to do the job — and additionally rid our landscape of road kill and other victims of Father Death. The public works department should put them on the payroll.
To find food, vultures use their keen eyesight and exceptional sense of smell. Even from the sky, they can detect the smell of mercaptan, a gas that is produced at the beginning of the decay process. Don’t expect the vulture to call you for dinner: they have no syrinx, or voice box, and so can only hiss and snort through their nose.
Since their meal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, vultures can take their sweet time getting to the table. While they can fly up to 40 miles an hour, they have the slowest wing beat of any bird, clocking in at only 1 beat per second. Compare that to the ruby-throated hummingbird, whose wings beat 50 times faster.
The most common type of vulture seen here is the turkey vulture. It is quite large, having a wing span of up to 6 feet, and can be seen soaring high in the sky. It holds its wings in a V-shape, known as a dihedral.
A social bunch, a group of these birds is called a venue of vultures. However, if they are circling above, call them a kettle; and, if they are perching, a wake.
Just don’t ever call them buzzards. Vultures are not buzzards. The buzzard is a term for a type of hawk, specifically a European species that is not found here. Vultures are actually more closely related to storks, herons, and ibis than to hawks.
Vultures are paradoxically clean and disgusting at the same time. The vulture’s best trick (if you ask a 12-year old boy) would be its vomiting prowess. It can both projectile vomit and defecate a distance of up to 6 feet. This will dissuade most anyone that might want to get too close. Vultures will also urinate on its own feet to cool down on a hot day and disinfect itself after a messy meal. As I said, clean but repulsive.
Even so, vultures get a bad rap. The Old Testament called them an “abomination.” Pioneers in the deserts of the Wild West naturally weren’t too keen on them either. And Mark Twain, writing in Following the Equator, notes that “A vulture on board . . . has a businesslike style, a selfish, conscienceless, murderess aspect — the very look of a professional assassin, and yet a bird which does no murder. What was the use of getting him up in that tragic style for so innocent a trade as his? For this one isn’t the sort that wars upon the living, his diet is offal — and the more out of date it is the better he likes it. Nature should give him a suit of rusty black; then he would be all right, for he would look like an undertaker and would harmonize with his business; whereas the way he is now he is horribly out of true.”
Certainly they are victims of their own bad image (beauty may be skin-deep, but so is their next meal): the very name vulture is synonymous with traits that we call unsavory. But, since death is one of the few constants in the natural world, it doesn’t look like the vulture, its food supply, or its unpleasant reputation is going to be going away anytime soon.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.