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Krulwich Wonders: Showing Vultures A Little Love

Tuesday, July 03, 2012 - 01:36 PM

A vulture feeds on a carcass (The RSPB via Vimeo)

Think of a giraffe lying on the Serengeti plain. He has just died, maybe of disease, maybe he was killed by a pride of lions, but now he's a 19-foot-long, 4,000-pound mound of meat, which very soon is going to stink and rot and muck up the neighborhood.

The lions that did it will eat roughly 35 pounds each. With five or six lions, that's a start, but there's a lot of giraffe left. Hyenas will help. Jackals will, too, but the bulk of the cleanup goes to the hero of my tale, nature's prize janitor — hard-working, efficient, unbeloved, unadmired and now down on its luck. I am talking about the vulture. The vulture needs a little bit of love ...

The RSPB via Vimeo

... not only because these busy birds clean up giraffes (and hippos and gazelles and lions in Africa) weighing, by one estimate, about 12 million kilograms, or the weight of about 200,000 men — but because they do it all over the world, gobbling up dead goats, cows, deer, rats at no charge, recycling that flesh back into other living things and then into the Earth.

They are built for this work. They will spot a corpse from high in the sky, swoop down, then cautiously approach, while tens, then hundreds of other vultures, seeing a gathering, will join in. If the meat is getting a little skanky, they don't care. The have a digestive system that can handle bacterial biotoxins. Rotten meat doesn't make them sick. And if they get covered in blood and body parts, that's a plus, because the odor keeps lions and other enemies away. What's more, because their diet probably makes them taste bad, says biologist Bernd Heinrich, "few animals eat them. Indeed, they use their partially digested food in projectile vomit as a defense." Ewwww.

Not only do they eat the dead — they can play dead, too. If an enemy closes in, some vultures lie flat and get stiff, and since they're already covered with blood and rotten flesh, they make a convincing corpse. Plus (and here I'm just going all in), their babies are adorable, and I'm told they make good pets.

The RSPB via Vimeo

Professor Heinrich says a friend of his adopted (and was adopted by) a condor. This friend "traveled with it in his van and let it fly free on occasion to show off the bird's awesome size and beauty. The van was its cave, to which it returned and where it roosted contentedly as long as it was well fed on fresh meat."

Vultures have an ancient, noble lineage. Birds, after all, descend from dinosaurs, and some of our most popular dinosaurs were scavengers. T. Rexes, for example, weren't long-distance runners or agile hunters. "Their long, sharp teeth were adapted for ripping flesh," says Heinrich, making them, very possibly, one of our original "undertakers." Same goes for the flying pterosaurs with their 39-foot wing spans, who could swoop down onto giant brontosaurus corpses and, because of their size, keep their seat at the table. Heinrich calls them "supervultures."

Great-great-great-great-grandpa of vultures? Dorling Kindersley /Getty Images

When the dinosaurs passed, huge scavenger birds like the giant teratorn replaced them. But lately, scavenger birds' diets have gotten skimpier. Woolly mammoths, giant sloths, saber tooth tigers, African gazelles, American bison — those animals have either disappeared or have drastically diminished. It's like the Earth's kitchen has stopped serving vulture food.

Meanwhile, those animals still on the vulture menu — goats, cattle, even deer — are protected by humans and not allowed to spoil under the sky. Cattle farmers use every bit of the cows they slaughter, and even roadkill deer are carted off by highway departments and buried. "Vultures would do the job better if we let them," says Heinrich.

But the worst news is that vultures now have a drug problem. In Asia, where (in Hindu countries) cows are allowed to roam and die, where there are elephants, goats, monkeys and rats, vultures have held on, especially the white-rumped vulture. For centuries, the vulture was everywhere, living comfortably near human cities. Then, 20 years ago, very suddenly, it began to vanish. The collapse was so sudden, by the 1990s, biologists counted fewer than 10,000 individuals, mostly in Cambodia.

What happened? It turns out that an American drug developed to protect cattle had become popular in Asia. It's an anti-inflammatory medicine called diclofenac. When vultures descended onto a diclofenac-infused cow, many of them suffered kidney failure. So many vultures feast on a single cow that just one feed can poison hundreds and hundreds of birds.

The RSPB via Vimeo

Across Southeast Asia, teams of conservationists are now trying to wean farmers from diclofenac. They've come up with almost-as-cheap equivalents that don't poison vultures. A German pharmaceutical firm, Boehringer Ingelheim, that invented one substitute released its patent so that it can be manufactured cheaply. In several countries, officials have opened what are called "vulture restaurants." They put diclofenac-free goat corpses under the sky and invite local vultures to dine safely. It's too early to say if the campaign is working, but just in case, Indian and Pakistani scientists have learned to breed drug-free baby vultures for future release into the wild.

In North America, our vultures are luckier. Because of global warming, some of them have moved farther north into Canada, where there are herds of caribou that die in the open and increasingly remain unfrozen. There are fewer people up there, so animals aren't removed or buried. The turkey vulture, once a strictly Southern bird, says Bernd Heinrich, now breeds in Canada. "For decades I never saw a turkey vulture," he writes in his new book Life Everlasting, "but now I see them regularly every summer in Vermont and Maine." So vultures have a niche in the North.

But they're still getting clobbered in the South. Chemical companies are coming to market with ever newer rat poisons — Havoc, Talon, Ratimus, Maki, Contrac, and d-Con's cleverly named Mouse Prufe II — and these poisons can infect animals that feed on rats, which include not only vultures but also barn owls, ravens and sometimes crows. Flying predators love the occasional rat snack, but we humans think we can conquer the rats on our own, running the show by and for ourselves.

We should be more humble, says Bernd Heinrich. In the long run, it makes sense to protect animals that do the grunt work of the world. They do it well, they do it for free, and if we keep them around, we don't have to do it ourselves.

Vultures may not be the prettiest animals, they may, on occasion, smell like death, but if we let them slip away, if we try to manage the world all by ourselves, we will end up, increasingly, by ourselves. Alone can get expensive. Alone is riskier. But most of all, alone is lonelier.

Bernd Heinrich's new book is Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), and if you've never read Heinrich, then you've missed out on a poet/scientist who can go for a walk and come home with more wonderful stories than Hans Christian Anderson, and unlike Hans, Bernd's are all true. You can go into your backyard, into the woods, pick up a rock, roll over a log, poke into a tree hole and see what Heinrich sees. Can't do that with Mr. Anderson. Mermaids are really hard to find, while beetles, wasps, ravens, vultures and bees are doing remarkable things — right outside your door.

If you want to see vulture rescue teams at work in India, Pakistan, Cambodia and Nepal, this video from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds tells the story well. That's where we got our pictures.

Saving Asia's Vultures from Extinction from The RSPB on Vimeo.


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Comments [7]

MG from NJ

A few months ago my husband and I took our kids to the Raptor Trust in The Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in NJ hoping to see the owls (snowy, screech, saw-whet, and barn). Then we met the vultures: they were amazing. Unlike the jerky staccato motion of other birds, they are fluid and graceful and seemed intelligent. Anytime we approached their cages they came closer to have a good look at us, leading to the obvious jokes about their true intentions, but they appeared truly curious and friendly.

Oct. 25 2012 02:37 PM

The little boys I nanny are Indian, and they have me read them the Ramayana all the time. One of the bravest of the characters is Jatayu. He is a demi-god who has taken the form of a vulture, and he dies trying to rescue Sita from the demon Ravana. I don't know why exactly - there are many frightening and sad parts of the Ramayana - but this is the only part of the story that always, always makes me cry. Jatayu is the character I've always identified with and there is nary a mention of his being a vulture as a bad thing. In fact, as he lays dying he tells Rama the direction Ravana went with Sita, and thus helps Rama and Lakshman in their efforts to rescue Sita.

Aug. 17 2012 12:51 PM
Benita Winslow from Detroit, MI

Vultures have long been a favorite of mine. Thank you for such an elegant articulation of their virtues...I shall pass it on!

Thank you for your time and attention,
Benita Winslow
Your fan

Aug. 01 2012 04:14 PM
Robin from Oakland, CA

Here in California, we have lots of vultures (I see them at least weekly, even in close proximity to my urban environment), and now thanks to conservation efforts, we have many California Condors back to soaring about our skies and looking for a snack. They're amazing, AMAZING, creatures, and I love them enough to have a large tattoo of a "California Vulture" on my calf from a drawing made in 1820 (it is believed to be a California Condor). A fellow volunteer of mine at wildlife rehab center here in the SF Bay area has proclaimed several times that the worst thing she has ever smelled was Turkey Vulture vomit (birds also will vomit when sick).

Rodenticide, as what essentially is rodent poisoning of various wildlife, is unfortunately becoming a vastly large problem in our own backyards here in the US. When you poison your "pests" in and around your home, you are also poisoning amazing, beautiful creatures who feed on those pests either after eating the poison and before they die, or after their deaths. It's extremely sad to see an animal suffer from the often neurological effects rat poison has on a creature, like a crow, who was merely attempting to survive in our world. People need to be aware that there is indeed a delicately connected web of life.

My only other comment on the article is that I worry about the pets story. These animals deserve to live their lives, free, in their natural environment, with very little interaction with humans unless desperately needed in order to aid in the survival of their population (and I don't mean zoos, but rather biologists and rehabilitation efforts). I hate to be that person, but I am going to, and say that these creatures are afterall, wild. While I feel lucky that I get to volunteer with helping to rehabilitate wildlife, at the same time, a lot of wildlife comes in with problems that could have been prevented if we simply let our curiosity be fulfilled with just watching and observing, and not interfering with them. This is just my $0.02.

Otherwise, a great and awesome article Robert! Thank you!

Jul. 19 2012 04:52 PM
John from Princetion NJ

We seem to have an abundance of turkey vultures in central NJ in large part due to the large deer population and the associated road kill. There is a bounty of 50-70 kg carcasses for vultures to feast on. At some points I see trees with more than 10 vultures roosting. They seem to be thriving in suburbia.

Jul. 11 2012 02:17 PM
Vieve from San Diego

This was a fantastic article Mr. Krulwich, and it set me off on a vulture-related reading spreeeeee! I learned they're birds of prey. Yay! for vultures.

Jul. 09 2012 10:56 PM
Lauren from Japan

This is a great piece. I came across a vulture chick, it was pretty cute, but it did smell like death.

Jul. 06 2012 11:22 AM

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