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Vultures; My love/hate relationship with the black vulture

Did you know…

…there are vultures on all but 2 continents? The term ‘vulture’ is a general term used to describe a large, feathered carrion eater. There are two families, the Old World Vultures, family Accipitridae, found in Africa, Europe and Asia (this family also includes hawks and eagles) and the New World species, family Cathartidae, found only in North and South America.

Vultures may be well represented worldwide but not every country has these massive carrion eating masterpieces. The UK, for one, has no breeding populations of vultures (sometimes the Bearded Vulture will make an appearance exciting even the most seasoned birder, but they don’t stay long. Apparently there just isn’t enough for them to eat).

North Carolina has 2 native vultures, the American Black and the Turkey vulture. The lamb/calf attacking American Black has a black, featherless head while the larger, cuter, non lamb/calf attacking Turkey vulture has a bright red featherless head. Both species gather in large groups to sleep (often together) but the American Black forages/hunts in packs while the Turkey vulture eats alone.

There are three terms used to describe a gathering of vultures; in flight they are called a ‘kettle’, resting on the ground or in trees they become a ‘committee’, while group feeding they are a ‘wake’. Next time you’re with an avid birdwatcher be sure to casually drop these terms and see how impressed they are. I can’t wait to share this with my Mother-in-Law. Although, of all the birdwatchers in my world, she probably already knows these cool terms.

Just as a heads up it is illegal to kill a vulture not matter how much you might not like them. Federally protected, at that. Plus, if you get to close to them they might vomit on you….no joke.

I am obsessed with animals of all kinds. I don’t care how slimy, leggy, hairy or smelly, I can find something to like about them (except for ants, I can’t stand ants). Moving to the US was the best thing for a nature loving, animals obsessed, young teen. It was like moving to a whole new world of animals waiting to be discovered! (I’ll have to tell you sometime about my dead fly collection or the time I hatched out an egg sac of praying mantis’ (which our dog ate) or the time I turned an aquarium into a wasp house), but nothing prepared me for the seeing my first big bird.

The vulture was sitting on the side of the road hunched over its lunch ripping and tearing away. I can’t swear I cried out with glee but in my memory, I can clearly hear the tut-tutting of my mother and the admonishing “Samantha!”

Rather than the carnivorous big bird of prey with blood all over its head I imagined I saw, it was a shy red headed turkey vulture eating carrion. I was blown away!

I kept that love and fascination of these gentle giants as I entered adulthood then motherhood. Each Fall I would lie on my back in the pasture lazily watching the swirling kettles of vultures (with some bald eagles thrown in) pass by one group after another, riding the upper currents so far away they looked like swarms of flies. Only one of my kids is as fascinated as I am.

Over the last 5 years Scott and I have noticed our sweet turkey vultures becoming less and less common, being replaced by the more aggressive American black. These brutes are bold, they perch on our fence posts in committees of 10-20 at a time (see how I did that, kettle and committee seamlessly and appropriately used…loving my new vocabulary)

To begin with it was neat being the place where all the cool birds hung out, but it got old pretty fast. Vultures eat large quantities of food then find somewhere peaceful to digest and, eventually, poo (they eat and poo like a cow, nothing dainty about it). Don’t get me started on the smell….they smell, well let’s face it, like death.

The final nail happened while on a pasture walk on a farm in Roxboro (just north of us). The farm had 3 guardian dogs to protect their flock of sheep not from coyotes but from vultures. Apparently, the American black vulture eats in wakes (see…did it again!), sometimes they get peckish and fancy something a little fresher. They are known to attack and kill newborn lambs and calves (I can’t even tell you how they kill…it’s just too gruesome).

After a little research, I found this to be a huge issue on the large ranches out west….I felt betrayed! For decades I held the vulture in my heart as this gentle giant who was completely misunderstood. I took every chance to point out their virtues, which are many (lamb killing doesn’t fit into this image), to anyone who would listen. Luckily the turkey vulture is a solitary feeder and sticks to carrion, so much more in line with my weirdly protective love of these birds.

It is illegal to kill or harass vultures, but it isn’t against the law to not notice the 20 black birds in the pasture when you to take the dogs for a romp and accidently scare them off. Or have your son innocently fly his drone and accidently encourage them to move along. Nor is it a crime to have your ewes lamb in with George the emu, who hates vultures and will chase them relentlessly and enthusiastically.

They aren’t all bad and can be useful as an indicator that a lamb is born (they love a placenta) but we are quick to run out and encourage them to take their dinner else ware. Lambing season is also known as vulture season around here.

The next time you see a turkey vulture on the side of the road give him plenty of space so he can eat his meal in peace, but I won’t be offended if you stick your tongue out at a black vulture. Scott wants me to add a disclaimer. Apparently, he thinks I’m being too harsh in my criticism of the black vulture. He likes them because they’re smart and adaptable unlike the turkey vulture. I had no idea we were a house divided.


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