City Cast

The Gross Way A Turkey Vulture Keeps Its Cool

Scott Dickensheets
Scott Dickensheets
Posted on August 22
Photo of a turkey vulture

This guy is as startled as we are about turkey vulture etiquette. (Cavan Images/Getty)

Sure, they defecate on themselves, vomit at strangers, and eat the most gawdawful things — but that doesn’t mean turkey vultures are the drunken frat bros of the animal kingdom. No, those behaviors, as gross as they are to us judgey humans, are merely some of the bird’s survival strategies.

Turkey vultures, so named because of their vague resemblance to a Thanksgiving main course, are found near Las Vegas. (Indeed, I wrote about one before.) You can spot them in the air by their distinctive wing posture: tips slightly forward to create a shallow V shape, and “the trailing edge of the underwing is white,” says

Up close, their bald crimson heads are unmistakable. But that unfeathered dome serves a purpose. As notorious eaters of carrion — which they can smell from as far as eight miles — turkey vultures jam their heads into some pretty foul, germ-laden places. The baldness prevents microorganisms from clinging to their heads. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a bird this ugly doesn’t have a lovely song. It hisses.

OK, the pooping/peeing on themselves. On their feet, to be precise. It (a) helps them keep cool (try it yourself; it works!); and (b) fends off organisms from the rotting flesh they eat. The vomiting usually happens when the vulture is threatened. “If they target the predator’s face, the material can be blinding.” You don’t say.

What makes much of the vulture’s grotesque lifestyle possible are powerful stomach acids that neutralize the nasty shit one encounters in dead flesh: rabies, botulism, distemper, anthrax. Which means this butt-ugly bird is likely doing more than you or I to keep nature clean. A good bird, then — as long as it survives the increasing heat.

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