Vultures are crowned as the largest raptors and the most efficient land scavengers.
Additionally, they have enormous wingspans (>3.3m) and piercing hooked bills.
Therefore, they have quite an intimidating presence.
However, vultures are also the least likely to attack any live prey.
Vultures are considered the most harmless of raptors.
Now, you may be wondering,
Why Are Vultures Not That Dangerous?
Because they lack the incentive as well as the machinery to be lethal assassins.
You see, nearly all birds of prey have piercing bills and strong feet equipped with sharp talons.
The claws allow these raptors to grab their prey and squeeze it to death.
Meanwhile, the beaks help in tearing through flesh to engulf bite-sized meat chunks.
Now, vultures do have hooked beaks.
However, they lack powerful crushing feet.
Instead, they have elongated flat toes with blunt talons.
Unlike other raptors that kill with claws, vultures use their feet merely to walk or hop around.
Besides, vulture beaks are not that sharp.
For this reason, vultures may have to wait for hours or days before a dead body soften up enough to let them tear through.
Figure: 1: Vulture Characteristics making them scavengers instead of active predators.
Depending on their species, vultures do have either a highly developed vision or an extraordinary sense of smell.
Also, they can poke holes through soft skins.
Vultures cannot do much damage to large animals.
Moreover, vultures can eat the dead without contracting any diseases.
Consequently, they don’t really need to hunt.
While an owl may dip its talon or beak inside a human skull, a vulture will merely watch from afar.
Which leads me to my next point
Do Vultures Ever Kill?
They do, but once in a blue moon.
Now, the mildest of infections in the wild means ‘A Slow Excruciating Death’.
And so, most animals tend to avoid a sick or dying animal altogether, much less a dead body.
Even among scavengers, a maggot-ridden and rotting carcass is usually abandoned.
Finding and consuming carrion is still easier than killing the live prey, protecting the prize, and then eating it.
However, vultures specialize in avoiding deadly infections.
- Vultures have featherless heads and necks. Therefore, they can dip their faces inside a rotting flesh without getting infections stuck to them.
- Vulture eyes have special eye membranes to avoid corneal infections from degrading substances.
- Vulture stomachs have highly corrosive acids (pH <1) and enzymes. So, vultures can neutralize ingested toxins such as botulism, anthrax, rabies, cholera, and even bubonic plague bacteria.
- Vultures urinate on their legs to kill off any residual microbes on their feet from walking on the dead.
- Vultures have strong immune systems to protect against foreign agents.
- Vultures take frequent baths and regularly preen each other.
Owing to these adaptations, vultures thrive on dead rotting bodies.
Pretty awesome right?
Vultures don’t take the dead to their nest.
Instead, they feed their chicks directly by regurgitating food into their crops.
Most vultures lack the motivation to hunt live prey.
They hunt small animals by throwing them from enormous heights and eating their bone marrow.
They also take food and bones to their so-called nests.
Apart from bearded vultures, other vultures may also hunt sometimes.
This mostly happens when there are too many vultures to feed and too few dead bodies around.
However, vultures don’t like struggling prey.
Vultures tend to hunt for only the sick, weak, or dying animals.
Incidents have been reported of vultures feeding of a ewe in labor, a sick horse, or chickens.
However, a committee of vultures can even poke holes through a young calf of merely two weeks.
Again, such cases are extremely rare.
Even so, most people assume vultures as an omen of death or poverty.
So one may ask,
Are Vultures Evil?
While Mesoamerican legends portray vultures negatively.
However, most of the historical accounts give vultures a holy status.
For instance, ancient Egyptians assumed that all vultures were females, and eggs were laid without any intervention from a male.
Vultures represented purity, motherhood as well an eternal cycle of life and death.
In fact, the goddess of truth and justice was often depicted with vulture wings.
Furthermore, Egyptian Queens often wore vulture crowns to curry favor with ‘Nekhbat’ – who they believed was the patron and goddess of upper Egypt.
In Hindu tradition, vultures are revered as protectors.
It’s because they believe Jatayu- the mythical vulture, got slaughtered trying to rescue Sita from Ravana.
In Buddhist cultures, vultures played a significant role in sky burials.
Indeed, the vulture’s representation as evil or sinister beings started in the 1900s.
While the word vulture was derived from the Latin word “Vellere” meaning “To tear or pluck”.
However, its scientific name Cathartes aura means “Golden Purifier” or “Purifying Breeze”.
It is more befitting to vultures as they literally purge the earth, claiming the title of “Nature’s Clean-up Crew”.
You see, vultures ensure that nutrients don’t stay locked up within the dead bodies.
Also, they restrict the spread of infectious diseases.
Truth be told,
Without vultures, the world would see far more lethal and widespread pandemics than the ongoing COVID-19.
Therefore, vultures are more like nature’s soldiers against disease and death.
Are Vultures Friendly?
Despite their frightening appearance, vultures are rather docile birds.
They mate for life and are extremely protective of their young ones.
Some vultures crop-feed their chicks for up to 8 months of age, well after they have fledged.
However, hundreds of vultures get together every night for communal roosting, within rock crevices.
While vultures don’t hurt their own family members, they also don’t try to eat vultures of other species.
Sometimes they even protect other kinds of condors.
For instance, black vultures are relatively aggressive vultures with excellent vision.
In contrast, turkey vultures are rather tame birds with an exceptional sense of smell.
And so, they can easily find carcasses by smelling them from miles.
This way the black vultures can easily find food.
But, the presence of a single black vulture scares away other small scavengers, thereby helping the turkey vultures claim the dead body.
But most of the time, vultures feed off a carcass alongside other scavengers like hyenas, coyotes, pigs, and foxes.
Are Vultures Friendly to Humans?
Vultures are strangely drawn to human communities.
Though nobody knows the precise reason, scientists suggest that it’s probably because human societies provide a constant stream of rotten food waste.
While they don’t normally come close to humans.
However, even if they do, vultures don’t attack humans.
Vultures are the least reported raptors with cases regarding attacks on humans.
That said, most human-vulture encounters are described as vultures not interested in attacking humans.
They would only attack a human if they wished to do so
More like vultures don’t seem to find humans threatening, rather they find it too much effort to kill and consume.
Again, that is just a theory as vultures lack strong feet to hold down a human.
If a vulture feels remotely threatened, it will simply puke out undigested materials from its crop and then fly away.
The reason is to distract its predator with puke as well as lower their body weight to easily become airborne.
Therefore, hundreds of vultures have been seen around battlefields.
All that aside, if you are hoping to adopt a vulture, I am afraid that cannot happen.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act law 1918 prohibits capturing, hurting, or shooting all birds of prey.
So, the only reason to keep a vulture around will be either for conservation or educational purposes.
Even if you were allowed to keep a vulture, they may still not fit your ideal pet qualities.
Well, vultures are quite intelligent birds.
However, they lack syrinx.
Therefore, they cannot vocalize anything, as parrots do.
And so, they will only go as far as hissing, screeching, or beak clacking.
I mean vultures eat the dead.
They are likely to contain certain diseases on their skins and feathers.
While these may be harmless to the vultures, however, they may be harmful to their human owners.
Even if you wish to, vultures cannot be made into cuddly pets.
Also, they urinate on themselves and rummage through decaying matter.
Vultures always tend to smell like rotten musky materials.
It’s safe to say, they won’t make ideal pets!
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Vultures are the most misunderstood raptors.
They are often associated as a symbol of death or evil.
However, they are an essential part of the environment.
They eat the dead and rarely ever hunt live prey.
Without them, the earth would drown in mounds of carcasses, and the whole ecosystem will collapse.
Though they are rather genial birds, they cannot be adopted as regular pets.
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