Turkey vultures, also known as turkey buzzards, are a common sight throughout the state of Virginia. As one of the most widespread birds in the western hemisphere, their range extends west to California and south to the tip of South America. Turkey vultures are often seen gliding on thermals, buoyed by a wingspan that can reach up to seven feet.
Most birds have no sense of smell, which makes turkey vultures extremely unusual, as they rely entirely on their noses to detect prey. They do so by detecting a byproduct of carrion called ethyl mercaptan. This same compound is commonly added to petroleum gas, causing confused turkey vultures to congregate around gas leaks.
While most birders are acquainted with turkey vultures, they may not know the important role that they play in the ecosystem. Like all vultures, turkey vultures are equipped with a powerful digestive system that is capable of killing harmful bacteria, such as the bacteria responsible for anthrax. In fact, when vulture numbers decline, rates of human diseases go up. In India, falling vulture populations correlated with higher rates of both anthrax and rabies.
Turkey vultures have no natural predators, but they face one significant man-made threat: contamination from lead bullets. When game is shot with lead, the bullets break apart and contaminate the meat, making it toxic for both human and vulture consumption. California Condors, turkey vultures’ larger cousins, have to be regularly treated for lead poisoning to prevent species collapse.
Vultures are the sanitation workers of our ecosystem, disposing of carrion and keeping diseases in check. Therefore, the next time you see a turkey vulture, you should give it thanks. After all, it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it.
Haskell, David George. The Forest Unseen: A Years Watch in Nature. NY, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 2013.