Vultures: Disposers for unpleasant biology

Possibly instinctual, but more likely born of myth, lore, countless movies and more than one cartoon, the sight of their hunched shoulders and piercing eyes staring from a bald, leathery head is just, well, creepy.

Knowing they delight in rotting carrion compounds that sensation — make that compounds exponentially — when you see nearly three dozen of them.

Their presence alone is enough to make you wonder … what died?

The answer is nothing, or at least nothing significant enough to justify their presence.

Sure, they can be spotted every evening, lined up symmetrically like pieces of affixed hardware on the rungs of the abandoned radio station tower on Sycamore Street — but not because it “died.”

And they aren’t roosting next to the park or the zoo because they have some expectation of fine dining, though surely they do find morsels here and there, be it wasted animal food or careless picnic droppings and trash cans full of discarded scraps.

Suffering no other distinction than being on the way south, Clovis is along their migration path, and according to Mark Yannotti, assistant director of the Hillcrest Park Zoo, around this time every year, committees of vultures can be spotted resting on the radio tower on Sycamore Street and circling the skies over Goodwin Lake Trails in north Clovis.

Beady eyes and overly observant, opportunistic posture aside, there is no need to mind the vultures at all, because even if they weren’t en route to somewhere else, they really aren’t that bad to have around, really.

With the Clovis visitors predominantly Turkey vultures, there are seven species of vultures found in the “New World” of North and South America. Belonging to the Cathartidae family, a word with Latin ties to “purifier,” vultures really are one of nature’s mechanisms for catharsis.

Disposers for all the unpleasant things biology can muster, they are literally built for the job, from the top of their bald heads — an alternative to bacteria lodging in feathers — right down to the tips of their weak little chicken legs which aren’t strong enough to lift and carry but do a great job of steadying a meal for consumption.

Different from their larger and sometimes aggressive vulture cousins though, Turkey vultures, don’t present much threat to the living.

To the contrary, they are known to toss their lunch if frightened or confronted, a defense mechanism believed to distract predators and lighten their loads so they can escape to the air.

So while having a creature vomit partially digested carrion at one’s feet is certainly disgusting to some and possibly delightful to other predators, it is, believe it or not, more defense than offense.

In fact, aside from finding and chowing on nastiness with remarkable efficiency, that’s pretty much all they have. They aren’t even very good at flying.

Actually on the clumsy side when it comes to flying, when vultures are seen soaring in a funnel formation they probably aren’t circling rotting flesh, but are actually using the rising air of thermals to help them gain altitude and from there, they spread their large wings and sail along.

Which, incidentally, is how they tend to migrate, hopping one thermal at a time and soaring all the way to warmer climates.

Since carrion cleaner is not a job most would want, nor are their looks enviable — OK, they got a pretty hard beating with the ugly stick — a trip to the tropics seems well deserved for the visiting vultures, as long as they promise to keep working all the way there, that is.

Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: or on the web at:

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