Mother Nature’s Clean Up Crew

Chautauqua Watershed Notes

Vultures are scavenging birds of prey who play a fundamental role in the food chain. Photo by Susan M. Songster-Weaver

They are big. They are ugly. They grunt and hiss and dine on the most disgusting fare, but without them, our world would be a lot less enjoyable. Hail to the vultures and their trashy ways.

Vultures are scavenging birds of prey, who play a fundamental role in the food chain.

There are two main types, the New World Vultures and the Old World Vultures which live primarily in Africa.

We are most familiar with two types of the New World Vultures: the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture.

In the old Westerns on television and film, Black Vultures were the circling birds in the desert that let ranchers know where a dying steer or other animal was located.

Up until the mid-1950’s, many Northerners might not otherwise have ever seen a Black Vulture, whose range was mostly in the southeastern part of the U.S., Mexico and Central and South America.

Most of us are more familiar with the bald, red-headed Turkey Vulture or Turkey Buzzard, named because of its resemblance to the wild male American Turkey.

They are widespread and one of the most visible birds as they tend to live close to humans where our waste is their dinner ticket.

When I was a child, I’d see the vultures overhead and cry because I knew something had died.

Some birds may breed in the north, but their range spreads from the Northern U.S. across much of the continental U.S. to Mexico and Central and South America.

If it seems like you are seeing more vultures, it may be because their numbers have been increasing.

In an April 15, 2011, article written by Jack Connor entitled “Vultures Riding North,” Conner suggested the increase in the Turkey Vulture population was due to the increase in the white-tail deer population.

We all know too well that when the deer population increases so does the number of car-deer accidents.

Those dead deer alongside the road are a grand buffet to vultures.

Turkey Vultures weigh about three pounds and have a wing-span of 2.1 to 2.7 feet.

They have a highly developed sense of smell and forage for carrion and road kill using this sense.

Fresh-dead meat is their preference, but they will eat older meat, decaying vegetation, some live insects and live fish in drying-up ponds.

Many people used to believe vultures spread disease, but in fact they do good work for us by cleaning up sick and diseased animal carcasses.

They have heavy duty flesh-eating Fusobactera and highly toxic Clostridia in their systems and powerful acids in the gut to digest flesh.

They use the bacteria from the food they eat to help them digest the food they eat. (

Black Vultures are the birds I see more of in Florida.

They are bigger birds, weighing from 2.6 to 4.3 pounds with a wingspan of 4.4 to 5.5 feet.

They can live up to 10 years in the wild and mate for life.

They enjoy living in groups with other family members.

Their sniffers aren’t as good as the Turkey Vultures, so they watch where the other vultures go and follow them to the dinner table.

Once there, they gang up on the other birds with their more aggressive nature and numbers to steal the meal. (

Being more aggressive, Black Vultures may sometimes kill or injure lambs, newborn calves, cows giving birth and other weakened livestock.

They are also protected as a migratory bird, so it is unlawful to hurt or kill them without a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Yep, they are big, ugly and have disgusting table manners to go along with all that grunting and hissing, but we all should be glad they exist.

Give them a wink and a nod they next time you see them cleaning up our roadsides.

Endure what is left of winter and take heed to enjoy the early signs of spring.

I’ll be migrating home with the red-winged blackbirds.

See you on the water and the trails!

Susan M. Songster Weaver is a retired teacher, nature lover and longtime CWC volunteer and supporter.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit or