They’re big, a bit smelly and eat dead stuff. Vultures might not the prettiest of birds — some might even say ugly — but they are some of the most important animals around. Vultures are what clean up after the rest of nature. They can make an animal carcass disappear in no time.
Some call them buzzards, a name given to them by the first English settlers who thought they looked like the hawks called buzzards from back home in Europe. They do fit in the larger family of raptors that hawks also belong to, but vultures are vultures, not hawks.
There are only two species of vultures in Texas today, but that was not always true. Besides the common turkey vulture and black vulture we see almost daily, at some point in history Texas skies also saw California condors soaring in search of food. Reach even further back and there is a mystery vulture with wingspan even larger than condors.
Fossil skeleton records from caves have shown both of these species lived here. California condors have an impressive 9-foot wingspan, but the ancient bird, thought to be a vulture species, was up to 14 feet.
Our local cleanup crew is now made up of the turkey vultures, with their featherless red heads, and their smaller cousins, the black vulture, with equally featherless heads that stay black. Besides the different colored heads, they can be told apart in flight by the much shorter tail on the black vulture, and their shorter rounder wings that have a silver appearance at the wingtip.
The turkey vulture has silver in the wing as well, but it’s the whole trailing edge of the wing, not just the tip. Turkey vultures also fly with their wings in a dihedral, or slight V shape, often rocking back and forth. Be cautious because you can’t always judge by head color as the young turkey vultures have black heads until close to adulthood.
Both vultures eat carrion, and the riper the better it seems. This helps turkey vultures find food, as they “hunt” by smell. They can smell something dead from a great distance. The black vulture finds its food by sight, and will often cheat by keying in on the turkey vultures circling over a dead animal. Just follow the guys around that can smell the stuff.
And there is a distinct pecking order that can be seen at a carcass. Turkey vultures go in first, and it might be that they can better start the process with more powerful beaks. If a crested caracara joins the fray, they wait their turn after the black vultures. Caracaras are not vultures — nor eagles — and closer related to falcons, but they do eat a lot of carrion, however that’s another story.
One “fun” fact about black vultures: They release excrement on their legs and feet to keep them cool. That is what gives their legs that nice white appearance.
But strange as they might be, we must be thankful these big guys are around. Without them, we’d have a much smellier world.