They may not be beautiful, but vultures play a vital role in keeping disease in check. They do so by stripping carcasses quickly and efficiently.

It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it!

I consider vultures to be endlessly fascinating in their habits and lifestyles. They are truly the garbage men and recycling team of nature!

I’ve been very lucky in my travels to see a variety of these birds; from common Turkey and Black Vultures in North America to rare Griffon Vultures soaring high above the steep cliffs on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. But my favorite that I’ve seen in the wild has got to be the strikingly marked white, black and orange-colored King Vulture of Central America.

A Face Only a Mother Could Love?

King Vulture in Honduras photographed by Steve Shunk

Spooky Vulture Facts

  • The vulture has few predators. Its most common defensive tactic is to hurl projectile vomit at his adversary and fly away.
  • Vultures can digest meat in any stage of decay, and withstand diseases that would kill any other creature.
  • Vultures urinate to cool off (they lack sweat glands) and to disinfect their legs. Vulture urine kills any germs picked up walking through a carcass.
  • Their head is bald, making it difficult for bacteria to stick to them when probing for flesh deep inside a carcass. What little bacteria remains on their bald head gets baked off in the sun.
  • Vultures were once regarded as largely beneficial and were well-tolerated in human-populated areas. A negative attitude toward these scavengers was developed in the early 1900’s when people became concerned that vultures might increase the spread of disease, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
  • In Africa, witch doctors grind down vulture brains for the magic they are believed to possess.
  • Tragically, these majestic birds are now in steep decline worldwide due to hunting, pesticides, poisoning, and collisions with wind turbines and high-power lines.

Black Vulture in Texas photographed by Steve Shunk

Learn More About Vultures

You can learn more about vultures and the many  threats they face in “Why Africa’s Vultures Are Collapsing Toward Extinction” on the  National Geographic website. 

Can you spot the excellently camouflaged Griffon Vultures on this cliff below?

Griffon Vultures in Sardinia by Steve Shunk

We had a challenging time doing so, even when viewed through a spotting scope since they were so high above us on the coast of Sardinia and their forms blended so perfectly with the gray granite rocks and the tawny lichens. Learn more and view videos of Griffon Vultures on the Internet Bird Collection website.

California Condors

California Condors are a type of vulture that was once widespread throughout North America, but the species is now restricted to California and a few other states where they have been reintroduced.

  • They may look scary, but California Condors are not predators; they are strictly scavengers that feed on dead animals. They can consume up to 4 pounds of food and then go several days before their next meal.
  • The California Condor was at the brink of extinction around 35 years ago when only 22 birds remained. However, through heroic conservation efforts, they’ve made an impressive comeback.

Learn more about the California Condor

  • Website of the San Diego Zoo; the first facility in the world to hatch a condor egg.
  • Watch a live webcam of a condor nest with chicks.

Books About Vultures

Vultures: Kings of the Dead
A kid-friendly yet educational video that provides a great overview of vultures of the world. Hosted by super cool paleo-science illustrator, Danielle Dufault.

Video: Why I love vultures: TED talk by raptor biologist Munir Virani.

Now that you know a little more about vultures, I hope you’ve discovered how fascinating they are and gained some appreciation for the vital roles they play in the ecosystems they inhabit.  If you liked this story, please share it with others!