Let’s face it: Vultures get a bad rap.
They feed on the dead, are viewed as dirty, mean and opportunistic — and they vomit and defecate on themselves. OK, on the surface, that does sound pretty disgusting. But vultures actually provide a great service to ecology, and some of their behaviors are downright brilliant from a practical standpoint.
Vultures’ primary diet is carrion — decaying flesh of dead animals. Their feeding habits fulfill an important role in the ecosystem by disposing of matter that would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.
As for appearance and personal hygiene, there are practical reasons for why they look and act the way they do. For example, many vultures, such as the turkey vulture, are bald. Feeding on bloody, rotting carrion can be messy business, and not having feathers on their head helps with cleanliness.
Vultures also are often seen standing in a spread-winged stance that serves multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria from the most recent feeding.
Many types of vultures are known to regurgitate when approached or disturbed. This both deters predators and decreases the birds’ weight, making it easier to take off during escape. Many types of vultures often defecate on their own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself, a process known as urohidrosis.
The Pueblo Zoo is home to three types of vultures. There are two cinereous vultures living in the African Plains exhibit on the south side of the zoo. In July,
two female black vultures arrived from a Tennessee rehabilitation center; they now live with Wyatt, a male turkey vulture, in the old bear pits near the World of Color building.
It is interesting to note that despite the perceptions and appearances of vultures and their “nasty” traits, Wyatt is known by staff to be one of the most personable animals in the zoo.