As we have all likely observed during the last few months, some of the deadliest threats to our everyday lives come in microscopic packages.
The human body is constantly on the fight against an incredible variety of tiny attackers. Although there are a host of beneficial species that we rely on ourselves, harmful bacteria are some of the main assailants against our immune system. Unfortunately, many of these bacteria reproduce rapidly and are able to survive in extreme environments, making them difficult to effectively remove from inundated areas.
While scientists spend countless hours and dollars working out new and improved ways to sterilize harmful bacteria, nature has long been at work in removing these dangerous organisms in the wild. In fact, some of the most effective bacteria battlers the world has ever known are easily seen on most clear days as they circle high above the mountains gliding on air currents.
That’s right – the vultures in the skies and among our roadkill are remarkably adept at finding and cleaning areas of harmful bacteria at their source, mainly in decaying bodies. As vultures eat, the powerful acids contained in their stomachs are able to dissolve bacteria that would stop most diners in their tracks.
Salmonella, cholera and anthrax are among the bacteria that are removed from the environment when a vulture consumes a corpse. Areas with healthy vulture populations, leading to fewer carrion left exposed for long periods, tend to have fewer disease outbreaks in other scavengers like raccoons. The two vultures that reside in this area are black vultures and turkey vultures.
Both turkey and black vultures are large birds, with wingspans of around 5-6 feet. Black vultures are the smaller of the two, and their bald heads are typically dark grey to black. Mature turkey vultures, on the other hand, sport a red dome. Vulture heads are believed to be featherless in order to help keep clean during in-depth feeding sessions, and to help with thermoregulation.
The two types are most easily identified from underneath the bird. The underside of black vulture wings has white patches at the tips, while turkey vultures have mostly white on the underside of theirs. Turkey vultures have a powerful sense of smell, and are able to pick up the scent of a dead body from over a mile away.
Black vultures don’t have such strong noses, and rely on their extra sharp vision to watch the ground as well as the activities of other vultures in the area. Black vultures tend to travel in groups, which will then run off individual turkey vultures.
Especially among other large birds, vultures are remarkably social, and live together in family units for a very long time. They can live for up to 25 years, and while they do migrate in some areas, most tend to stick around our area for the entire year.
Some scientists, like those working with the Audubon Society, predict that the habitats of our local vultures will be heavily impacted by climate change. Changing seasons and increased severe storm occurrence will likely play a large role in this, as the dead hollow trees that vultures use to make their nests are some of the first to fall in heavy winds.
The consequences of declining vulture populations are wide-reaching, leading to a buildup of harmful bacteria breeding sites that slowly affect the surrounding ecosystems. Whenever possible, leave dead standing trees on your property to give nesting and resting sites for these important animals.
And remember, if you hunt, do not leave your kills in the environment, as vultures and other scavengers can get lead poisoning from ingesting shot.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping. For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.