LBL Wildlife Report: Vultures, Mother Nature's Clean-Up Crew
In the next installment of Land Between the Lakes' Wildlife Report, Woodlands Nature Station lead naturalist John Pollpeter speaks to Tracy Ross about Mother Nature's clean-up crew: vultures.
Vultures' appearance and dietary habits give them a spooky reputation, but Pollpeter says they are one of the most important animals in the ecosystem. "They're Mother Nature's clean-up crew," Pollpeter says. "They are cleaning up the stuff that causes a lot of harm—things that would attract a lot of diseases. Parasites. By cleaning it up, that disease, those parasites, those flies, those vermin will not get spread to us."
And while eating roadkill seems like a recipe for disaster, vultures are "perfectly adapted for what they do. I have not seen anything that they won't eat, including bones that they can get down their gullet."
Pollpeter explains that vultures' distinctive bald heads help protect them from disease and bacteria. Bald heads are easier to keep clean than feathers. The black feathers also help protect against disease by attracting UV rays that "cook off a lot of bacteria that are on them."
"One of my favorite adaptations to talk about is how they clean their feet. It's very unusual. It's not like any other animals really do this. They poop on them. It's such a strong acid; it burns off all the germs and bacteria that you're going to see on their legs. The strong acid works as antibacterial soap. Of course, I never recommend that for anybody to try. But for vultures, it's a system that works," Pollpeter laughs.
There are two species of vultures in the Land Between the Lakes area, the black vulture and the turkey vulture. The latter has a better sense of smell, which is very rare among birds. "Other birds—chickadees, hummingbirds, owls, they don't have a sense of smell or a very rudimentary one."
Because of their keen sense of smell, other scavengers—including black vultures—will follow the turkey vultures' lead. A group of black and turkey vultures circling together is called a "kettle," after their swirling-like appearance.
Pollpeter says it's important to put appearance- and diet-based prejudices aside when it comes to these unusual birds. "Think of the disease rabies. If an animal dies of rabies and a vulture eats all that up, that basically stops any disease from spreading to another mammal. That in and of itself is one of the best ecological services you could have."
"Right now, you're going to see a lot of vultures in this region as they're migrating further south. They don't deal well with really cold winters. At the Nature Station, we have a turkey and black vulture roost. You can walk in the backyard behind the deer pens, and you can see—especially in the evening—about 150 vultures gathering in the trees for nighttime roosting."