Did you know a coven of vultures swirling overhead is called a ‘kettle?’ I love that. It makes me think of a fortune teller’s black magic tea-leaves, steeping in her stove-top cauldron. And of course, we all know what this fortune says. Vultures are the harbinger of death, eagerly awaiting the last painful breath of unlucky desert travelers. They are known as opportunists and cowards, picking at the soft entrails of others’ misfortune, gleeful at their bleach-bone fate. If you’re like me, your thoughts turn instantly to ambulance-chasers and divorce lawyers. The ancient Mayans didn’t see them that way, though. To them, the vulture was a god: human in body, with a naked kingly head. He brought their earthly messages skyward to the other gods, a divine liaison between heaven and earth. Today, this exquisitely-adapted carrion specialist has many things to tell us, if we choose to listen. Tune your ears to today’s entry of The Biomimicry Manual, and maybe you will agree.
Despite what you may think, Turkey Vultures are quite magnificent. These gothic showgirls are perfectly and uniquely adapted to a scavenging lifestyle. She shares this macabre habit with her cousins, the endangered California Condor and the extinct Teratorn. Who is this Teratorn, you say? She was like an Andean Condor, but bigger. Much bigger. Argentavis magnificens stood six feet tall, weighed 170 pounds, and had a wingspan of 25 feet. She was the largest bird that ever flew. A carrion-picker, most likely, but I still wouldn’t want to meet her up close. What kind of scraps was she going after? Big American game, no doubt. I imagine her pulling greedily at sabertooth and mammoths tendons, ground sloth and cave bear hides. And also brontotherium guts (because they are my favorite weird rhino-creatures). Most big animals of the New World are sadly long gone (bison excepting, thanks Ted Turner!), and their scavenger groupies went with them.
You can still find big vultures in Africa and Europe, but they’re not related to our New World versions. That’s right, ‘vulture-ism’ evolved twice. Apparently, feeding on carcasses favors certain desirable traits. One is an elegantly bald neck and pate. Does nakedness keep blood and gore from sticking to your feathers when you jam your head into a rotting animal? Maybe so, though recent studies suggest it could just be so their sweet little faces don’t overheat. At any rate, if I were a carrion-picker, I’d go for easy clean-up, and maybe solar sterilization too. You know, to kill the bacteria? But that’s just me.
The important thing to know about any particular species of vulture, on any continent, is which part of the carcass they eat. There are ecological rules about these things. You want to specialize, stake out a niche, stand out from the competition. ‘Rippers,’ for instance, go for the tough bits. Tendons and hides. These species have the strongest bills and the widest skulls. Contrast them with the ‘Gulpers,’ who prefer the nice soft muscles and juicy guts. These have narrow skulls, so they can really weasel their scrawny necks deep into the evening’s delightful repast. Last are the little Scrappers, who eat, what else? The scraps.
The Turkey Vulture largely avoids the whole pecking order by exploiting an odd talent. Unlike other birds, she has a fine sense of smell. The olfactory lobe of her brain, responsible for processing scent, is extraordinarily well-developed. She flies low to the ground, seeking the unmistakable stench of ethyl mercaptan, the deathly gas produced by animals decaying. She uses her special sense to hone in on rotting carcasses in the dark, dense forest, where more dominant vultures can’t use keen eyesight to their advantage. In fact, other vulture species follow her there, in the hopes of finding food.
She turns a few other special tricks in her ghost town parlor. You might see her posing dramatically, wings spread out gargoyle-style. She’s drying her wings, warming up, or trying to cook off the day’s bacteria. She has one other really terrific idea. She cools off by defecating on her legs. Her highly concentrated uric acid excretions have the added benefit of effectively killing bacteria. Which is important when you wade through rotting piles of meat all day. Pretty cool, huh?
So next time you see a kettle of vultures wheeling black overhead like leaves in a teacup, forget the Wile E. Coyote imagery and the lawyers, and remember the Mayans’ bare-necked beauty, bearing celestial messages skyward. Yes, she may have some rough frontier dining habits, but she scarfs her ghoulish delights with gothic poise and all the faded elegance of the burlesque saloon. And the old girl’s still got a few tricks up her feathered sleeve.
An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.