( * not to be read on a full stomach)
There are plenty of adjectives that jump off the tongue when you see a Turkey Vulture, but cute is not one of them. It’s a difficult bird to describe. Gross when viewed up close, but almost majestic when seen in flight. Filthy scavenger who eats nothing but dead and rotted animals, yet very beneficial to the ecosystems where it makes a living.
So maybe the best description of this unusual creature is its Latin family name--Cathartidae. It comes from the original Greek word Katharsis, which means to cleanse or purge. In fact, vultures play a very important role in cleansing the ecosystem and purging it of its offal. In ancient Greece, the Vulture was held in high esteem because it literally consumes death and produces life.
And the Turkey Vulture is able to do this thanks to some fascinating evolutionary adaptation. The vulture’s gut is unusually high in acid, and contains several bacteria that allow the Turkey Vulture to feed on rotted meat with no ill effect. (Pity the scientists, or their poor interns, who sliced open vulture intestines to learn these biological tidbits.)
Fascinating? Yes, but there is no denying the Turkey Vulture is gross--so gross that it has no natural predators, because no predator wants to mess with the stench. And it does some weird stuff--like vomiting a lot. It’s a defensive measure—a very effective one, I imagine.
And when it poops, it just lets it run down its legs. This bad habit makes it sound like the vulture just revels in filth, but actually there might be some cleansing effect from this high-acid white-wash.
Now that you know more than you probably needed to about the Cathartidae family of birds, can you ever again experience a cathartic moment without thinking of the master of catharsis, the Turkey Vulture?
Dan's Feathursday Feature is a weekly contribution to the COS blog featuring the thoughts, insights and pictures of Chicago birder, Dan Lory on birds of the Chicago region.