The State We're In

Vultures: Nature’s cleanup crew helps ecosystem

Apr 6, 2023

By Alison Mitchell, Co-Executive Director

To some people, vultures may seem ominous as they search the landscape for dead animals to eat. If those big dark birds are circling above your head or watching you from tree branches, you might be tempted to yell, “Go away, I’m not dead yet!”

Wildlife educators believe vultures have unfairly gotten a sinister reputation. Yes, they’re associated with death – but unlike other raptors they’re rarely the cause of death. Instead, they serve as “nature’s cleanup crew,” getting rid of roadkill and other carrion, and in doing so preventing the spread of disease.

“Vultures are my favorite animal,” said Heather Natola, director of education at the Millington-based Raptor Trust. “They’re ridiculously smart, clever, social birds” who are extremely loyal to their families.

“They may look ominous, but they’re really cool,” agrees Rachel Ndeto, assistant education director at the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford. “If we did not have vultures, we would be up to our eyeballs in dead things.”

It’s a misconception, Ndeto said, that vultures will go after pets: “Some people believe they might attack their dogs or cats outside, but that’s not true. They have no interest in you if you’re alive.”

Anyone feeling spooked at the sight of vultures, said Natola, should understand that “not having vultures in the ecosystem is a hazard.”

Parts of Asia, she noted, have been experiencing a health crisis due to a scarcity of vultures. It started with an anti-inflammatory medicine, given to cows in the 1990s and 2000s, that is toxic to vultures. Affected areas lost 96 percent of their vulture population when the birds fed on cow carcasses. Populations of rats and feral dogs increased to fill the void, leading to an uptick in rabies and other diseases.

New Jersey is home to two vulture species: turkey vultures and black vultures. Turkey vultures are longtime natives of New Jersey, while black vultures are a southern species that have more recently expanded their range northward. Both are common birds, not endangered or threatened.

Like all raptors – a group that includes hawks, eagles, owls, and falcons – vultures have sharp eyesight, hooked beaks, and strong talons. But unlike other raptors, vultures prefer to scavenge carrion for their meals. Their stomachs produce highly acidic digestive fluids, so they can eat rotting flesh without getting sick – including the flesh of animals infected with rabies, tuberculosis, and other diseases.

Turkey vultures have an excellent sense of smell – possibly better than dogs – and can detect the scent of carrion thousands of feet away. With wingspans of up to six feet, they like to glide on air currents called thermals and updrafts. Turkey vultures are recognizable in the sky by the V shape made by their wings when soaring, in contrast to the flatter profile of other raptors. They prefer to eat mammals, but will also feast on fish, reptiles, and other birds.

Black vultures are slightly smaller than turkey vultures and don’t possess as good a sense of smell, so they’ll sometimes follow turkey vultures to find carrion and then move in on the feast.

Both species have disproportionately small, bald heads for their body size – which makes sense considering where those heads go! Turkey vultures have bright red heads, while the heads of black vultures match their bodies.

Flocks of vultures may roost in big old trees, or they might congregate on the roofs of houses. You may notice them hunching over and spreading their wings, a behavior that has multiple purposes. Though vultures have oil glands like those of ducks, they still may need to dry their feathers or soak up warmth from the sun. Ultraviolet rays from the sun also help kill bacteria on their feathers, said Ndeto.

Vultures don’t have many predators, so they don’t scare easily when people walk near where they’re roosting or feeding. But if they feel threatened, watch out – they might throw up!

“They do vomit when they feel threatened, which is a strong defense mechanism,” explained Ndeto. “That stuff reeks, which really puts off other animals. It also makes them lighter so they can fly away faster.”

Interested in seeing vultures up close and personal? Both the Raptor Trust and Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge have vultures that are permanent residents due to injuries or becoming too “imprinted” with humans to survive in the wild.

The Raptor Trust has three turkey vultures – Templeton, Virgil and Turk – and one black vulture, Winston. “All four are imprints, and they’re very friendly,” said Natola. For information on visiting the Raptor Trust, go to https://theraptortrust.org/. The facility helps about 5,000 injured, orphaned and sick birds each year, and offers both free self-guided tours and paid guided tours.

At the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, Apollo the turkey vulture is the most gregarious of the five ambassador vultures. The others are turkey vultures Hekyll, Jekyll and Socrates; and Ursula, a black vulture. For information on visiting Woodford Cedar Run, go to www.cedarrun.org/. The refuge charges admission, but all proceeds are used to defray the cost of its animal hospital, which helped about 6,000 injured and orphaned animals last year.

To learn more about vultures, visit the All About Birds website at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Turkey_Vulture/lifehistory .

And for information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

About the Authors

Tom Gilbert

Co-Executive Director

Alison Mitchell

Co-Executive Director

John S. Watson, Jr.

Co-Executive Director

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director, 1999-2021

View their full bios here.

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