Imagine what it would be like to live in a large city where the garbage collectors went on strike for a year. We have been in a few places where there had been a strike for a few days, and the odor and potential for disease was absolutely horrendous. Some of us may rank garbage collecting as one of the least likely careers that we would want to go into, but mankind is faced with major ecological and space problems with his own waste. Think of how much greater that problem is in the natural world. How do you dispose of an elephant when it dies? Think of the problems involved when there is a mass die-off of almost any group of animals due to a disease or a natural disaster. Humans take huge bulldozers and practice mass burials to avoid the epidemic of disease that a disaster like a tsunami or a flood brings, but the natural world outside of man has nothing quite like that.
In reality there are a number of different garbage collectors that handle the deaths of living things--worms, dung beetles, and some mammals like hyenas. In the past dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurs rex ate mostly dead animals, and probably did very little killing of living things. Most of us know that one of the most efficient and useful workers in the disposing waste is the vulture, but what we may not realize is how incredibly well designed the vulture is to do what they do. The turkey vulture's real name is Cathartes aura which is Latin for "cleansing breeze." That really is a good description of what the vulture does.
The easiest way to spot a vulture is the presence of a bald head. The bald eagle is not really bald, but the turkey vulture is. The head is free of feathers and has an oily material on the skin that prevents any carrion (dead meat) from sticking to the bird as it eats. Vultures cannot kill anything. Their feet are not made to be a weapon and cannot cut or tear things. Vultures are designed to eat dead things within 24 hours of when it dies, and their sense of smell cannot detect something dead if it is over 24 hours. Vultures heat their bodies by spreading out their wings while in a tree to warm up, and they cool themselves by defecating on their feet.
The vulture is designed to keep a big area free of dead things, so it is specially designed to soar on thermals. An adult vulture with a six-foot wingspan will only weigh about three pounds. They will catch thermals and ride them up as high as 20,000 feet so they can monitor the area that they serve. Groups of vultures spiraling to gain altitude are called kettles because they look like water boiling in a pot. Hawks watch vultures to find thermals, and vultures can soar for hours using their design for staying aloft to keep the earth clean by God's "cleansing breeze."
--Data from Dick E. Bird News, March/April 2005, page 3.
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