Turkey and black vultures look similar, but there are a few differences. Turkey vultures have red turkey-like heads, and are larger and more graceful than black vultures. Black vultures are smaller and stubbier, and their heads are dark.
The easiest way to tell the difference between the two species is when the birds are soaring. From wingtip to body, the lower halves of turkey vulture wings appear lighter in color, while on black vultures only the wingtips look lighter.
Turkey vultures also have a better sense of smell, so black vultures tend to hang around nearby in hopes of being led to an easy meal. Another difference is aggression. Turkey vultures do not eat live food. Black vultures however, have been known to occasionally kill wounded, weak, or newly born animals. Turkey vultures will join in to feed on the newly dead animal, which often leads ranchers to conclude that both species are responsible for killing newborn livestock.
Now for “ Grossology” – the science of all things gross
We all know vultures act as Mother Nature’s clean-up crew, but there’s far more to them than that. Not only do they clean up dead animals, they help reduce the spread of diseases such as anthrax. It turns out their gastric fluid is so acidic, it can kill just about any nasty microbe the birds might swallow while eating a diseased animal, without the vultures becoming sick themselves.
And their digestive systems come in handy for other things too – like keeping them cool. Vultures don’t sweat, which could be a real problem for a large black bird in the hot sun. But vultures have managed to solve this little problem by doing something a bit unexpected. They keep themselves cool by, ummm…. pooping (yes, pooping) on their featherless legs. The watery goo serves the same function as sweat in humans - when a breeze hits it, the birds cool down. Not only that, it’s completely sterile thanks to those acidic gastric fluids.
Oh, there’s more. Just like kids who are forced to stand up in front of class, vultures can get nervous and scared…. to the point that they will upchuck. While it sounds nasty, this is actually a good survival mechanism. When a predator is faced with the resulting stinky, burning mess from a vulture, they tend to scramble away. Kind of smart when you think about it - not only does upchucking scare predators away, it also lightens a vulture’s load, making for a fast escape when necessary.
There’s lots more to learn about these fascinating birds. Come on out to Goliad State Park – we’ll be happy to tell you more about them!