Circling vultures are often viewed as a sign of bad luck or as omens of death or disaster. And it is true, vultures are scavengers that feed on the dead carcasses of animals. In this sense, they are truly a kind of omen of death. But that is not a bad thing, and vultures are a vital piece of healthy land environments.
Those features that make a vulture look so repulsive, the featherless head and the big hunching body, are the features this animal needs to be able to live its life and feed in safety.
Vultures in the Wild
Various species of vultures can be found all over the world, originating from two distinct families, Old World vultures and New World vultures. Condors, turkey vultures, and black vultures are all New World vultures. Old world vultures do not as commonly have the distinct bald head of new world vultures and are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. The Eurasian griffon vulture, the Egyptian vulture, and the white-backed vulture are three examples of Old World vultures that have feathered heads and don’t look ugly at all.
Vultures are scavengers that feed on carrion. The enzymes in their stomachs are strong enough to kill off any dangerous toxins or bacteria that may be found in dead and rotting animals. Their hooked beaks are made for ripping and tearing. The word vulture even comes from the Latin word for pluck or tear. These huge birds can live up to 25 years. They have no voice box, and so the only sound they can make are raspy grunts and hisses.
Why Do Vultures Have Bald Heads?
So why do vultures have featherless heads? The most widely accepted answer is that having a bald head allows a vulture to remain clean as it eats carrion. Vultures often have to insert their heads inside carcasses when they eat, and it can be a pretty messy business. Having a featherless head cuts down on the mess. This adaptation prevents scavenging birds like vultures from soiling and dirtying their heads. It also makes it easier to clean and thus prevents the bacterial spread of disease.
Did you know that vultures also protect against spreading disease by excreting on their legs and feet? It is called urohidrosis. The powerful acids in their excrement kill any bacteria the vulture may have picked up after touching a contaminated carcass.
Other Reasons a Vulture May Be Bald
While most believe the bald head to be for the health and cleanliness of the vulture’s lifestyle, there might be another reason for fatherless heads among vultures. Not all scavenger birds have bald heads, like many species of Old-World vultures, so it may not be the only reason for the ugly phenomenon. Some believe that the bald head functions as a way for birds like vultures to regulate their temperature.
Species such as the griffon vulture endure drastic temperature changes between the summer deserts of North Africa and the below-freezing temperatures of the sky and need ways to regulate their body heat to survive. Bald patches may be one of the ways vultures do this. The urohidrosis mentioned earlier is another way vultures thermoregulate and adjust to extreme climate changes.
Why are Scavenger Species Beneficial?
The scavenger species is an underrated one, whether they are birds or mammals. Scavengers are uniquely equipped to clean up the remains of rotting, possibly contaminated carrion. Scavengers like vultures can safely and quickly dispose of dead animals and stem the spread of bacteria and disease. While they may not be the more cute or even majestic of birds, vultures are one of the few creatures with bodies strong enough to kill off microorganisms, toxins, and bacteria that could threaten not only the environments they live in, but humans too. These special creatures remove pathogens from the environment and maintain a healthy balance in nature.
Threats to Vultures
There is a unique and relatively recent threat to vultures that threatens some species with extinction. Vultures are dying because of modern medicine found in the carcasses of farm animals. Diclofenac is a drug in the same class as ibuprofen and is used in veterinary medicine to treat cattle with lameness, mastitis, swelling, or pain in calving. However, even in the smallest doses, this drug will lead to fatal kidney failure in vultures who eat cattle that had been treated with the drug.
Meloxicam is an alternative, vulture-safe drug that is being used more and more often to reduce the threat to vultures. Vulture populations are still in danger, however, particulate in areas where diclofenac is more readily available and affordable. South Asian countries struggle with this issue as they raise cattle that do not eat and yet have no way to dispose of once cattle dies.
Vultures are ugly and big and can feel a bit ominous. But the truth is that they are part of nature’s clean-up crew and do a great job of it. Their ugly red, white, or black featherless heads are part of how they get the job done while ensuring that they stay healthy and do not spread the potential for disease further. While there is a threat to vultures, particularly Old-World vultures, advances are being made to protect them and preserve species that are vital to the safety and protection of hundreds of ecosystems.