Lucille Ball, Prince Harry, Ariel (The Little Mermaid), Rita Hayworth, and Cathartes aura are all famous redheads. The last name on this list may not be as easily recognized, however.

Cathartes aura is the scientific name for turkey vultures. This species is known for their large size, dark coloration, and bald red heads (which are thought to resemble that of a turkey). They’re known colloquially as buzzards. As scavengers, the turkey vulture plays an important role in our ecosystems by eating carrion. Carrion is the dead decaying flesh of an animal; to be considered carrion, the animal cannot have been killed by the same animal consuming it.

You may have spotted a turkey vulture along the side of the road eating the carcass of an animal that has been struck by a car. While this roadside dining may sound gross to us humans, it’s a wonderful service!

Imagine what our world would look like if scavengers, such as the turkey vulture, didn’t clean up these messes. Scavengers not only keep things cleaned up, but by doing so they also prevent the spread of disease to other animals. The bald, red heads of these birds help them to eat carrion without anything sticking to them as they eat.

Their style of eating results in their faces and even their large intestines covered in bacteria that is toxic to most other creatures. Analysis of the bacteria living on vultures shows that these scavengers are adapted to carry flesh-degrading Fusobacteria and poisonous Clostridia.

As dead bodies decompose, the bacteria on them excrete toxic chemicals that make the carcass inedible to most animals. Turkey vultures, on the other hand, will wait for decay to set in before they dine. They are immune to the toxins, and a decaying animal is easier for them to tear into. Researchers have also found that the gastrointestinal tracts of vultures filter out many microorganisms that live on decaying carrion.

Not only does their digestive system allow them to survive off rotting meat, but turkey vultures also have the largest olfactory (smelling) system of all birds. The turkey vulture also has more mitral cells than any other species measured. Mitral cells help transmit information about smell to the brain. They can smell carrion from over a mile away. While most other species of vulture rely solely on visual cues to locate a meal, the turkey vulture’s extremely large olfactory bulb (the area of the brain that processes odors) and extra mitral cells direct them straight to dinner.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, there are an estimated 18 million turkey vultures currently providing their scavenger services for our planet. Due to their ability to find food almost anywhere, these birds live in a huge range, spreading across both North and South America. Kansas residents may notice these birds during the warmer season as they migrate north to breed.

Turkey vultures will appear to float in the air by using thermal currents (rising columns of air) to soar the skies. Groups of vultures spiraling upwards in these air currents are called “kettles” and have been reported to rise as high as 20,000 feet and fly for hours without flapping their wings.

They may not have the colors of a parrot, the majesty of an eagle, or the ability to joke like Lucy, but these redheads offer an invaluable service to our planet. Their scientific name Cathartes aura translates to “cleansing breeze." They continuously clean up natural messes that could cause incredible harm to humans, livestock, and other wildlife.

The next time you see a turkey vulture, take a moment to appreciate the unique service they offer the world; but don’t get too close, they’re known to throw up on anything that disturbs them too much.

Annually, turkey vultures have returned to a roosting site that they have chosen inside the zoo near the vehicle exit gate. They can usually be spotted in the trees in the mornings before heading out to scavenge around 9 a.m. See if you can spot them this upcoming summer season!

For more information on turkey vultures and many other species, visit the “Animals” section of our website at www.leerichardsonzoo.org.

 

Emily Sexson is the conservation education manager at Lee Richardson Zoo.