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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Caught Up in the Raptor

Air Date: Week of November 14, 2003

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Ask people what their favorite animal is and you're likely to get answers like cats, dogs, maybe a horse or wolf thrown in occasionally. Ask nature author and commentator Sy Montgomery. She tells us why turkey vulture is her answer.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: Most birdwatchers are tracing the southern migration of a number of species these days. But commentator Sy Montgomery is keeping an eye out for one in particular. It’s a meat-eating bird.

MONTGOMERY: In Western movies, at least, a crowd of these birds wheeling above you is not a particularly good sign. It usually means you’re inches from becoming carrion. Though in flight they superficially resemble noble hawks and eagles, turkey vultures aren’t viewed with the same awe. Admittedly, some of their habits seem a bit unsettling. Their method of self-defense, for example: they are able to projectile vomit their food, sending it sailing ten feet towards an enemy. Remember that turkey vultures eat nothing but carrion, and its sojourn in the vulture's stomach does nothing to improve its odor.

The other end of the vulture can be hazardous, too. Their white legs only look white; it's really "whitewash" from the material they defecate on their legs. Because a vulture’s digestive juices actually kill bacteria, the substance, some scientists think, might work as an antiseptic wash.

(Photo: Keith Channing, The Hawk Conservancy)   

Though these behaviors might distress some people, they serve turkey vultures well. And they, in turn, serve us. Vultures’ Latin name, Cathartes, means "cleanser" – because that's what they do, clean up tons of carcasses from woods and roads. Nationwide, the turkey vulture is recovering from the depredations of DDT and prejudice. They didn’t breed . here in New Hampshire until 1979. Their spread north follows the growth of deer herds and the highway system – both providing delicious carcasses on which to dine. Imagine what the highways would look like were it not for these scavenger-angels!

But the charms of these giant, red-headed birds go deeper than that. Few people ever get to know a vulture personally; but those that do swear they have hearts of gold. Consider the turkey vulture named Fiver. In the 1970s, he was hand-raised as an orphan at a research facility in Florida. He was so attached to people he would fly down and hop after them, hoping for a head-rub. The guy who was Fiver’s favorite had a hard time getting dates.

Fiver was only looking to humans for the same sort of friendship they would expect from other turkey vultures. They are loyal creatures who mate for life, sometimes more than 60 years. Besides their social graces, they’re spectacular fliers. Turkey vultures can soar above the clouds, so high you can’t always even see them. But if you do chance to spot a vulture at fairly close range, you will notice these shiny black birds' underwings are a satiny gray. Each turkey vulture, like every cloud, has its silver lining.

[MUSIC: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan“Face Of Love” DEAD MAN WALKING: MUSIC FROM AND INSPIRED BY THE MOTION PICTURE [SOUNDTRACK] (Sony – 1996)]

GELLERMAN: Sy Montgomery is the author of: “The Wild Out Your Window.”

[MUSIC: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan“Face Of Love” DEAD MAN WALKING: MUSIC FROM AND INSPIRED BY THE MOTION PICTURE [SOUNDTRACK] (Sony – 1996)]

 

Links

Turkey Vulture Profile

 

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