"They're the clean-up crew, the recyclers, the garbage men of the natural world."
Among all of Earth's creatures, few are as misunderstood as scavengers. They are nature's sanitation experts, consuming only carrion, the decaying flesh of dead bodies.
Not a pretty job to be sure, but absolutely essential to the well being of the environment. Scavengers come in all shapes and sizes, but some of the most efficient scavengers are birds.
In Western New York, the Turkey Vulture reigns as the chief scavenger. Although considered ugly by many, Turkey Vultures are a prime example of the amazing adaptivity of nature. And once you get to know a little bit more about them, the old myths surrounding this impressive species disappear like the very carrion the vultures feed on.
Tanya Lowe of Hawk Creek Wildlife Center knows the species well.
"They're an animal that's designed for a very specific role in nature, and they have a very important role in nature," says Lowe. "Their adaptations, their bald head, their big wings, it's all part of what helps them to do what they do best."
What they do best is keep the environment clean of decay and disease. Their incredible physiology allows them to consume things ridden with virulent bacteria that spawn disease that would stop other life dead in its tracks, says Lowe.
"They eat things with e-coli, anthrax, and botulism," says Lowe. "They take all these diseases from animals that have died, the acid in their stomach breaks it down, and they get it out of our environment which keeps not only other animals in the environment healthy, but it helps us a lot too."
The Turkey Vulture's adaptations help make them the perfect scavengers they are. Unlike most birds, they have the sense of smell, and are able to detect the scent of decay from eight miles away.
They are also effortless fliers, using air currents to soar in search of carrion without expending much energy. Their featherless heads also are critical in their ability to consume otherwise deadly meals.
"They tend to be very clean birds," say Lowe. "So by having a bald head they can stick their head into carcasses, get food, and anything that gets stuck to his head is very easy for him to clean off. He sits in the sun, puts his wings out, suns himself, it dries up, and then it's very easy for him to flake it off with his foot."
Despite the misconceptions surrounding Turkey Vultures and their kin, those who take the time to know them see them in a different light, a sentiment Lowe would definitely agree with.
"They actually are very beautiful birds. He's got a lot of iridescence in his feathers, he's got blues and purples, so they are very cool birds. Also very intelligent, which makes them very interesting to work with, and very interesting to learn about. There's a lot to learn about with vultures."
And as with everything in the realm of the natural world, there are lessons to be learned from these amazing birds. All it takes to learn is a little time, and an appetite for knowledge.
"If he can recycle, everybody else can recycle, too. He is one of the best natural environmentalists. So if birds can do it, we can certainly take better care of our habitats and our lands around us," says Lowe.
"Every species just deserves understanding. If we're not sure of why something's important, or if it's kind of annoying us in our own yard...learn about it. You might find how important it is."
If you would like to get an up close look at Turkey Vultures and many other birds, you can check out Hawk Creek's Wildlife and Renaissance Festival. It takes place the weekends of July 14th and 15th and 21st & 22nd. For more information, visit their website at www.hawkcreek.org.