by Sandy Stoecker, Naturalist, Highlands Center for Natural History
Because all living organisms are interconnected, someone has to clean up messes — the shells of previously living organisms and their rotting soft parts that would otherwise be littering the environment.
Many animals do their bit to help out to a greater or lesser degree. Some animals that we normally think of as predators do not hesitate to clean up scraps left by other predators. A large grizzly bear will even chase wolves away from their kill.
Smaller predators, such as coyotes, foxes and wolverines will hang around nearby waiting for their larger cousins to eat their fill, before seizing an opportunity to help themselves. Mountain lions will often kill a deer, eat as much as they can, then cover the rest to hide it from these opportunists.
However, that doesn’t always work.
Many of these opportunistic carrion feeders are members of the corvid family of birds — jays, crows and especially ravens. It is not unusual to see these birds industriously cleaning up a recent (or not so recent) roadkill, though their normal diets are usually made up of fresher food, but, a meal is a meal.
Some birds, however, eat only carrion such as: the California condor, which is still quite rare; the black vulture, which lives mainly in the eastern part of the country; and the ubiquitous turkey vulture, which is a common sight in the Central Highlands of Arizona, as well as in most of the rest of the United States and southern Canada.
Turkey vultures are most interesting creatures. One can tell, just by looking at them that they are well-suited to their task as disposers of dead things. Their beaks and feet lack the power and the design for killing living things, though their hooked beaks allow them to free the last shred of meat clinging to a carcass.
Their heads are completely featherless, which makes it easier to clean them of bacteria and parasites encountered while rooting around in dead carcasses.
Turkey vultures nest on crags, caves and clefts in rock piles. They don’t bother to build a nest. The female lays her two white eggs on the bare ground and incubates them for 41 days. When the babies hatch, they are fed exclusively on a diet of regurgitated carrion. (Yum!??)
These birds sound totally disgusting, right? Actually, they are quite impressive. They are a very large bird — males and females are quite similar in appearance, with shiny black feathers. They have a wingspan of up to 6 feet, and the underside tips of their flying feathers are grayish white.
When they are observed soaring aloft on the thermals, they are quite beautiful indeed, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Every living organism has its purpose in the circle of life, and turkey vultures are no exception. They fulfill their purpose efficiently, if not beautifully. It all depends upon one’s perspective.