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The Valuable Vulture

You’ve seen them at the side of the road, a crowd of scary-looking black birds eating a poor animal who didn’t safely make it across the highway. These black birds are vultures, of course, and though they are amazing in what they do for us, they are often misunderstood.

Vultures are unique birds. They are scavengers and play an important role in the food web. Because of their role as nature’s garbage disposers, they are a key component to maintaining healthy ecosystems. Why should we care? Well, human beings depend on healthy ecosystems to do a lot of things. Things like purifying the air so we can breathe properly, sequester carbon for climate regulation, cycle nutrients, so we have access to clean drinking water, and pollinate our crops, so we don’t go hungry.

The Cleanup Crew

Vultures, nature's cleanup crew, do the dirty work of cleaning up after death and helping to keep ecosystems healthy as they act as natural carcass recyclers. They eat dead animals, break down this organic material, and recycle it into the ecosystem as nutrients. Vultures can eat rotting meat that would make most other animals sick, and their digestive systems are adapted to kill harmful germs.

What would happen if vultures went extinct? According to biologists, the loss of vultures can allow other scavengers to flourish. These other scavengers could bring bacteria and viruses from carcasses into human cities.

Vultures have no incentive to attack humans, and they lack the physical attributes that could pose a threat. The most you might see is a vulture spew projectile vomit to defend himself against a human, but that is about the extent of their hostile behavior.

How does vomiting help? It lightens their body weight so they can escape more easily into flight. Vomiting also serves as a defense mechanism to deter predators.

Fun Facts

  • Vultures have weak feet and legs, so they don’t carry prey back to their chicks. Instead, they gorge on a carcass and regurgitate food to feed their young.
  • Vultures urinate on their legs and feet to keep cool on hot days. This urine has the added benefit of killing bacteria and parasites the vultures have picked up from walking through carcasses or perching on dead animals.
  • In South America, the Andean condor, a type of vulture, has the largest wingspan of any vulture in the world. It spreads 10-11 feet when the bird extends its wings.
  • New World vultures lack a voice-box. Their typical vocalizations are limited to grunts, hisses, bill clacks, and similar sounds that don’t require complex vocal cords.
  • Vultures face many threats that are endangering their populations. Poisoning is the biggest threat, primarily from toxins or lead in the carcasses they eat. Other hazards include car collisions as they feed on roadkill.
  • Scientists are considering using vultures to help find bodies from crimes. Vultures’ unique senses and abilities can be useful for forensic analysis.
  • At least one species of vulture can be found on any continent worldwide, including Australia and Antarctica.
  • Vultures are sociable creatures and are often seen as a collective unit. The name assigned to a group of vultures depends on what they are doing at that given time.
  • Weighing up to 15 kilograms, the Andean condor uses air currents and thermal air currents (depending on their location) to help keep their heavy bodies in flight.
  • Thermals help these birds to reach incredible heights, most of which would be deadly to other species of birds. Their cardiovascular adaptations allow them to fly at heights, where oxygen levels are at their thinnest.
  • Old World vultures do not have a good sense of smell—they rely exclusively on incredible eyesight to locate food. A soaring vulture can see a carcass from 4 miles away.
  • Vultures can eat up to 20 percent of their body weight in one sitting.
  • Most vulture species mate for life.
  • One of the few animals to use tools, Egyptian vultures use rocks to break open ostrich eggs.
  • Of the vultures that exist, over half of them are considered either Threatened, Endangered, or Critically Endangered as a result of human impact. Besides being electrocuted and poisoned from poached animal carcasses, vultures are also facing issues such as habitat fragmentation and increased human conflict.


  • A group of vultures in flight is called: 

         a. crowd

         b. teapot

         c. kettle

        Answer: c - A group of vultures in flight is called a kettle.

  • How many vulture species are there in the world

         a. 10

         b. 23

         c. 118

         Answer: b - There are 23 vulture species globally.

  • What is a common name for vultures?

         a. Buzzards

         b. Rotters

         c. Black Death

         Answer: a - Buzzards is a common name for vultures.

True or False

  1. Vultures circle dying animals waiting to feed.
  2. Vultures have bare necks so that when they feed on rotting carcasses, bacteria and other parasites can’t burrow into thick feathers and cause infections.
  3. Vultures are often seen with other carrion-eating animals like hyenas, eagles, and coyotes because these other animals help open flesh that is too stiff for the vultures to open themselves.
  4. Vultures have sensitive stomachs, so, surprisingly, they can tolerate the dangerous bacteria of rotting carcasses.
  5. Vultures eat mostly dead animals, but they are capable of attacking and will often prey on extremely sick, wounded, or infirm prey if food has been scarce and there are no carcasses nearby.

Answers to the True or False Questions

If you said True to Numbers 2, 3, and 5, you are well on your way to understanding these unique and important creatures.

What You Can Do

International Vulture Awareness Day is celebrated on the first Saturday every September. Hundreds of zoos, nature preserves, aviaries, and bird refuges worldwide participate each year with fun and informational activities about vultures to help everyone learn just how interesting and valuable these birds are. Mark your calendar to participate so you can make others aware of these unique and valuable animals.

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