Soaring high on thermal winds like a superhero, outstretched wings of sooty black plumage are silhouetted against a cornflower sky, drifting effortlessly for hours on end. A graceful spiraling descent lands the bird to the roadside, the wings revealing their attachment to a medium-sized body topped with a featherless head. Another bird lands beside the first, and then another and another; this crew of superheroes is all family.
Together, they clean up the recent victim of a vehicular strike — an opossum. After some bickering, hopping and shuffling, it isn’t long before the feeding group, called a wake, ascends back into the sky leaving behind little trace of the late opossum. The feathered avengers again soar high in the sky, seeking their next charge of carrion cleanup.
From a young age, society has conditioned us to view vultures as vile animals, leading us to believe that they circle above the heads of pitiful creatures approaching death, waiting to feast upon the fresh carcass of the recently departed. This notion is simply not true. To many, their appearance alone is off-putting: a head void of feathers designed for their feeding techniques, a sharp beak for shredding thick hides and their ominous gatherings in great numbers. Combine that with their putrid, revolting diet and it is no wonder that these less-than-stately birds are one of the most maligned and misunderstood animals on the planet.
Despite their dismal characteristics, vultures have qualities that warrant the distinction of a true superhero. Here are some interesting vulture facts that solidify their superhero status:
-- Turkey vultures have the ability to smell carrion (decaying animals) from over a mile away, even if it is less than 24-hours old.
-- Black vultures rely on exceptional sight to find carrion. They also keep close watch on the turkey vultures who may smell the next shared meal before it is seen.
-- Black vultures are monogamous and stay with their mate year-round. Large roosting groups may contain multiple generations and extended family lineage; brothers, uncles, cousins, grandparents all gather in the same location and often fly together to find food.
-- Vultures can eat meat contaminated with diseases, including as anthrax and rabies, without getting sick. This helps to prevent the spread of disease once the carrion is consumed.
While vultures provide “cleanup services” for their community, sadly they face several survival challenges. At one time, vultures were regarded as beneficial scavengers, however those attitudes changed in the early 1900s and they were viewed as dirty vectors for disease. Vultures were, and sometimes still are, shot by uninformed and illegal poachers for simply existing. Both black and turkey vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Act and those that harass or kill these birds can be fined and potentially face imprisonment. Collisions with vehicles also contribute to the mortality of vultures as many times the birds are feeding on roadkill. By remaining alert while driving, you can help to prevent the possible death of a vulture and damage to your vehicle.
How can you help Florida’s vultures? Support agencies that conserve and manage land that are important vulture habitats, such as Florida State Parks. Learning about these fascinating animals and sharing information with others leads to a better understanding of their important role in the environment. If you find an injured vulture, call the FWC’s toll-free Wildlife Alert hotline at 1-888-404-3922, or use #FWC or *FWC on your cell phone. This helps to get injured vultures the critical care they need for release back into the wild.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park invites everyone to come out and celebrate vulture awareness month during a special presentation at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 3, in the Wildlife Pavilion. Resident vulture enthusiast and advocate Andrea Junkunc, park services specialist, will present an educational program about why this species is important in our natural communities and how we can better understand and help these misunderstood birds.
The event is free, however regular admission is required to gain access to the park.
For more information on this and other events at the state park, call our park office at 352-628-5343.