Natural connections: Red-headed vultures – Superior Telegram

CABLE – The silhouettes of red-headed vultures soaring over farm fields and highways recently kept me company on a long drive to Iowa. With snow still falling at home, these dull, brownish-black scavengers have given me hope that a new season is on the way – albeit hesitantly.

Most people probably don’t associate red-headed vultures with spring – or even realize that vultures may have flown all the way to South America for the winter – but they are one of the earliest migrants back.

“What leads the way”, wrote Mary Oliver, “is not necessarily pretty.”

Vultures need warm weather so the smell of their food can rise skyward, and because it’s much easier to eat fresh animals than frozen dinners.

Just a few days after returning home, I spotted the V-shaped wings and wobbly, unsteady flight of a red-headed vulture hovering above my path. I guess the “buzzard” was trying to wait for the temperatures to rise enough for the hot air thermals to support their grey-fingered wings.

Having thermals to lift the birds up so they can move forward is far more critical to a Red-headed Vulture’s migration than a tailwind. Finding thermals is so important, in fact, that red-headed vultures gather in large migrating flocks that find unseen drafts. Since migrating in large groups means there will never be enough food for everyone, it’s a good thing that using thermals also significantly reduces the metabolic energy needed to fly.

For as long as I can remember, Dad reported every red-headed vulture (TVs, he called them) hovering over every road trip we ever took. And it was fun, even as a kid, to be able to easily identify such a big bird flying so high in the sky. They also have an excellent gross factor, which kids love.

“Don’t get too close to a turkey vulture,” the park ranger warned on my first trip to Effigy Mounds National Monument, “they’ll vomit all over you!”

The fact that I still clearly remember this fact, and the moment I learned it, validates my own love of using disgusting facts to teach children.

Since that day, I have discovered many more wonderfully revolting facts about red-headed vultures.

First of all, projectile vomiting is a defense they use against predators, not just curious humans. The foul-smelling mixture of semi-digested meat and digestive fluids can sting if it reaches the predator’s eyes. Additionally, it may be necessary to empty one’s stomach to lighten the load for take-off and escape if a TV is interrupted by gorging on a roadside carcass.

Red-headed vultures don’t just spray gross stuff at their enemies; they also defecate on their own legs. This habit has a scientific name (urohidrosis) and a valid purpose. When water evaporates from the combination of urine and feces (birds don’t separate their waste like we do), it cools the blood vessels in their legs and feet. The acidic liquid can also act as a disinfectant.

Although they cannot sweat, vultures’ feathers sometimes become damp during nights covered in dew, fog, or rain. Then, while they wait for the air to warm up enough to start rising in thermals, the TVs perch in a wing-spread position in the sun. Not only does this dry out the feathers, but it heats up their bodies and cooks bacteria onto their feathers and bare, featherless head.

In addition to antibacterial behaviors, red-headed vultures have developed excellent immune systems capable of fending off and even destroying microbes that cause botulism, anthrax, cholera, and salmonella. Their stomachs, crude as they may seem, help purify our world. Can you imagine a world in which dead things all slowly rot in place? Red-headed vultures epitomize that “every death’s secret name is life again.” (Mary Oliver, “Stinky Cabbage”)

Despite their rude appearance, every adaptation of the turkey vulture seems to aim for cleanliness. How appropriate is the scientific name for TVs? aura cathartes — means “cleansing breeze”.

The story of the vultures – of winter’s rotten wounds transformed and cleansed, of the purifier rising into the sky, of it returning to cleanse the world again and again – sounds a lot like another story I often hear at this time of year.

“Like big lazy black butterflies, they sweep the clearings in search of death, to eat it, to make it disappear, to make it the miracle: the resurrection…” from “Vultures” by Mary Oliver.

Author’s Note » Portions of this article are taken from a 2014 Natural Connections article.

Emily Stone

Contributed / Emily Stone

Emily’s second award-winning book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available for purchase at

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