Watch an old Western, and you’re likely to see images of vultures wheeling in a bleak sky over a sunbaked desert at some point, unwittingly playing their symbolic role as prophets of doom.
In the “real world,” however, these raptors play a far more vital role–that of nature’s clean-up crew, clearing the land of animal carcasses and helping to recycle nutrients, putting them back into the food web.
You can learn more about vultures, their ecological importance, and efforts to protect them from modern-day dangers that threaten to wipe out some species on International Vulture Awareness Day at Woodland Park Zoo on Saturday, September 3.
This event runs from 10:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. and is free with zoo admission. The calendar of events includes discussions, demonstrations, and special activities for kids. All activities will be staged at the Raptor Center.
10:30 a.m.: Vulture Talk
11:30 a.m.: Raptor Flight Program
Noon-3 p.m.: Olympic Vulture Study display with guest biologist Diann MacRae, coordinator of the Olympic Vulture Study, which focuses on turkey vultures and their numbers and migration in the Pacific Northwest
12:30-2:00 p.m.: Games and activities
2:30 p.m.: Raptor flight program
3:30 p.m.: Vulture talk
North America is home to three species of vulture: the California Condor, the Black Vulture, and the Turkey Vulture.
The California Condor, the revered Thunderbird of Native American culture, dwindled to a remnant population of less than 2 dozen birds as the result of decades of habitat loss and degradation, shooting, and poisoning due to the ingestion of lead shot in carcasses as well as carrion laced with poison that was set out to kill coyotes and other predators. Today, this intensively managed species’ numbers are up, but its survival in the wild remains tenuous.
Black and turkey vultures, North America’s other two native species, likewise suffered from shooting and poisoning in the heyday of American campaigns against predators, which targeted birds of prey as well as mammals such as wolves and bears. Today, however, their numbers are healthy, and they are protected by international treaties.
In many Western cultures, vultures have long inspired a shiver of repulsion. Who could love these odd-looking birds, with their naked heads and necks? The animals were also regarded as dirty and disease-carrying.
Nowadays, more people appreciate the fact that the birds’ featherless heads and necks are adaptations for a lifestyle devoted to eating offal and clearing the land of decaying carcasses: feathers would get extremely messy and be difficult to clean. Vultures have actually been observed scrubbing their heads against grass and rocks after a meal.
Indeed, in other cultures, vultures have long been revered for their role as nature’s clean-up crew. In ancient Egypt, it was illegal to harm a vulture because their scavenging ways helped keep streets clean; vultures were known as “the pharaoh’s pets.” Ancient Greeks and Romans did not restrict the vulture to an association with death; they also saw it as a symbol of life, because it had the power to turn death into life–a mystical summary that aptly captures the vulture’s role in recycling nutrients.
In parts of India, vultures have long served–and continue to serve–not only to dispose of carrion but also to take part in human burial rites. The inadvertent poisoning of vultures in this century in India as a result of using antibiotics in cattle led to a disastrous decline in vulture numbers, a decline that threatened the health of communities that depended on the birds to clean up carrion.
Fortunately for vultures in North America, their presence is increasingly being appreciated and even celebrated as more people have come to understand their ecological importance. The people of Hinckley, Ohio, however, got a jump-start on this phenomenon: They’ve been celebrating the return of migratory turkey vultures to their township ever since the spring of 1957, and the annual Buzzard Sunday event is now known worldwide.