Thursday, May 1, 2008

Black Vultures

The local West Union newspaper, The People's Defender, recently published an article about black vultures, Coragyps atratus, that was less than flattering to the species. Though black vultures are known to prey on weak or newborn animals, including calves and lambs, their greater role in the scheme of nature far outwieghs this negative character trait.

Vultures are scavengers. Their main niche is that of "clean-up crew". Consider the countless hapless creatures who lose their lives to our poor response time along the roads of America. If we imagine the reek of all of those decaying bodies lying in the humid Ohio River valley, we can finally appreciate the service vultures provide by clearing away that carnage. C.J. Maynard is quoted in "Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey" (Bent, 1961) as saying, "[Black Vultures] will seldom eat fresh meat but prefer to wait until decomposition has set in before beginning their feast... when the odor from the decaying mass became insufferable to human nostrils, they would eat to repletion."

Black vultures also possess traits normally attributed to better-loved species. Black vultures are extremely attentive parents. Both male and female help incubate the speckled eggs, which are laid on the ground in old buildings or in caves. The adults keep their young "gorged with food continually, the distended stomachs being plainly visible" (Bent, 1961). After fourteen weeks, the young vultures are finally able to fly. Until then, their best defense is to feign death if approached by a possible predator. If harrassed, vultures will regurgitate half-digested food. Considering the state of such food when it was eaten, the shock of its reappearance would certainly be enough to frighten away most creatures.

Black vultures are fascinating birds undeserving of their grotesque reputation. Hopefully, others will be able to forgive this bird its flaws and accept it for the natural - and helpful - janitor it is.

- Jessie Huxmann