Friday, January 27th, 2023
Friday, January 27th, 2023

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Nature smart: The king of vultures

Excluding the two species of condors, the king vulture is the largest vulture in the Western Hemisphere.

Looking for another New Year’s resolution? How about opening your mind to new ideas? For example, most people don’t like vultures. Yep, you read that correctly, so let’s think differently about vultures. We’ll start by taking a closer look at these amazing birds.

Vultures are a group of birds that make a living by scavenging on carrion (dead animals). There are 23 different vulture species, including the condors of the world. Here in the United States, we have two vultures – the turkey vulture and the black vulture, plus the huge California condor for a total of three species.

Many of the vultures have bare or naked heads and necks, which often puts people off on their looks. Bare skin is thought to help the birds maintain cleaner heads, especially when you consider they’re sticking their heads into piles of rotting flesh.

This makes some sense, because they can reach with their beaks most of their body to preen and clean their feathers, but are unable to reach their own heads to preen. The bare head and neck also help the bird to thermoregulate its body temperature. On cold days, it pulls its head down tight to its body, reducing the bare skin to outside temperatures and, on hot days, it stretches out its necks to expose the skin to allow for cooling.

Recently, I was photographing king vultures (Sarcoramphus papa), a species that lives primarily in tropical lowland forests from southern Mexico down through Central America into northern Argentina. I was staying at a lodge in the lowland tropical forests of Costa Rica. The days were hot and extremely humid. Temperatures during the day were in the high 80s, and it rained on and off throughout the day, driving the humidity through the roof. There was just no way to stay cool in the hot, muggy conditions.

To photograph king vultures, we had a short hike down a muddy road. The last part of the walk was up a small hill – steep enough to make the muddy adventure challenging. The last thing you wanted to do was drop your camera gear on the ground, let alone in the mud. Successfully navigating this last part led us to a well-concealed blind with a narrow window across the front so we could extend our cameras’ lenses.

In front of the blind was a small clearing in the forest jungle. It was early in the morning and there already were about 30 black and three king vultures visible. I couldn’t believe my eyes: Right in front of us, not 75 feet away, was the king of all the vultures. This magnificent-looking, black-and-white bird with a stunning yellow, red, blue, and orange head and a bright white eye encircled with a red ring was right before my lens. I’d dreamed about this opportunity.

For the next three hours, more than 20 king vultures flew into the clearing. I took thousands of images of these amazing-looking birds and thought about their natural role in this jungle forest habitat. These birds are the front line of recycling and reducing waste in a natural ecosystem. They find food by following the scent of rotting flesh. They eat things so putrid that it would kill you and me. (I could go on and on about the virtues of the vultures!)

These birds fill an ecological niche that really is a thankless job but extremely important. So, this year let’s resolve to accept things that may look or act differently from others. Let’s start with the vultures of the world! Happy New Year. Until next time … 

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