Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Tale of a Nose by Sallie Reynolds

Charcoal by Sallie Reynolds
Sallie and I were emailing back and forth a week or so ago, and somehow the subject of Turkey Vultures came up. I told her about my friend Shelia Gaby, who did her PhD thesis on Turkey Vultures. As I recall she would cannon-net them at the Miami dump to tag them. The president of the University of Miami visited the site one day and, while helping Sheila tag one of her subjects, was thrown up upon. My version of the story is secondhand at best, so Sheila feel free to correct me. I then commented to Sallie that If I could come back as an animal, it would be a Turkey Vulture. That's always good for an UGH! My reason: they don't kill their own food, love to sit with their backs to the sun, never have a bad hair day, can soar on thermals with their friends, and rarely dine alone. Ahhh, what a life." GR


The Tale of a Nose by Sallie Reynolds

Ginny loves Turkey Vultures as much as I do. But most of you probably don't often think about them, any more than you think about garbage collectors. Silently, these birds perform a similar great service. Many more animals die than can be consumed quickly by predators, scavenging mammals, insects, and microbes. So it's avian sanitary engineers to the rescue: From the air, they find carcasses more quickly and can get to them speedily. And since the sight of descending vultures is like a dinner bell, a carcass is often picked clean by a large crew, within hours.

You can Google “New World Vultures” and find the basics of their lives (try my website: www.takethemoment.org/species for a detailed introduction). But here are a few esoteric bits:

The story of our Turkey Vulture, or TUVU – one of the two vultures we have in California – is the tale of a nose. TUVUs are different from other vultures. They have a keen sense of smell, much keener than the famous nose of bloodhounds, much much keener than the noses of all other vultures (except two cousins in South America). Miles away and high overhead, they sniff out all newly dead creatures. Hawks, eagles, and other diurnal hunters find their prey by sharp eyesight; owls, being nocturnal, find theirs largely by hearing. TUVU uses his nose. It's not that other birds can't smell – we're discovering that that old wives tale is false. But TUVU's nose rules and he is the first to the party. Good thing, too, because, unlike hawks and owls, TUVUs can't kill with their wimpy feet, and their beaks are not very powerful either. This may be one reason they hang around roads: cars carve up the dinner beast before they get there, so they can eat fast before the rough, tough coyotes arrive and drive them away.

The adult w/ red head, shows the incredible nostril of this smelling machine
Vultures not only clean up dead animals, they reduce contaminants in the soil around their dining room. Their super-acid digestive juices (truly odoriferous!) kill many serious pathogens, including those causing salmonella poisoning, rabies, and anthrax. The indigestible bits from their meal are then compacted by the gizzard into a large pellet. This they regurgitate, a little present for microbes (microbes have the last word on us all). And since bird poop is mostly liquid and their intestines don't store wastes, the slurry is eliminated as it is produced. Vultures squirt it onto their own legs, apparently as a cooling mechanism, but it also sprays generously onto the ground, a tidy if stinky solution to potentially dangerous problem.

Whew! Did I say “keen noses?” Well, yes; even though they love smells we hate, they are, in own their way, quite discriminating. A few years ago, a captive TUVU developed a strong attachment to one of his keepers. He'd approach the fence when the man appeared and behave in a friendly manner. Then the man died. Two years later, his wife visited the compound and approached the TUVU's cage. The bird made a bee-line for her, displaying all the signs of recognition and affection he had shown toward his friend. Turns out she was wearing her dead husband's jacket.

This extraordinary nose lets the TUVU perform another little service: Before piping gas from a well to a storage tank, gas companies perfume the odorless natural product with ethyl mercaptan, the chemical produced by decomposing bodies. When a pipe springs a leak, TUVUs quickly gather overhead. Company crews can then find the leak and repair the pipe.
Fledgling with gray head and blue eye.
What would happen if these birds disappeared? In the last 20 years, India and Pakistan have seen their billions of vultures dwindle to a few thousand, poisoned by a cheap non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle raised for leather and dog-food exports. For millennia, the birds had kept down filth and pathogens, even in large over-crowded cities. But today, garbage areas have become stinking sumps and rabies is spreading from the mammalian scavengers to humans.

Fortunately this is in no danger of happening here. In the US today our vultures are thriving: TUVUs are common and increasing. The smaller, scrappier Black Vulture, found in the East and South, is moving into new territories. And the California Condor, after a truly dramatic recovery process, is coming back from the very brink of extinction.


The line drawing is of a single vulture, from a photo of a wall painting in Catal Huyuk, Turkey, from about 8000 years ago.

2 comments:

  1. Here's a Turkey Vulture song sent to me by Alison Cebula

    "Hey, hey, we're the TUVUs,
    And people say we're icky and gross,
    'Cause we'll puke all over your TEVAS*,
    If you dare to get too close...

    We clean up all your roadkill
    So you better be glad we're alive
    And just remember when you croak, dude
    We'll be there to peck at your hide!"

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  2. And another from Pat Jones

    Living on Hare Creek, they are constant companions while we garden and we both love watching them. Thank you and Sallie for this blog post. Love it. Several years ago I wrote about them, too.

    Caretakers

    Raptor-like, but they do not kill,
    only ride the thermals in games of tag,
    sense a passing and gather to share it.

    All day they repeat it—
    limb to sky, creek to tree—
    as many as twenty, wings uplifted
    to a waning sun until, rosy heads tucked,
    they fold and rest silent
    in keeping with the death they seek.

    Tomorrow they will circle
    the slow shallows, arrive early to bathe
    in the briny murk, cleanse the pale strands
    of those that didn’t make it till morning,

    Pat Jones

    Thanks again!

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