A website from UGA Cooperative Extension

Valuable Vultures
Article by: Jessica Warren, ANR Agent, Camden County

Some of our native Georgia wildlife is cute and cuddly looking, and well, some of it just isn’t. One of those animals that doesn’t charm the masses with an adorable face or cute behavior is the vulture. Luckily for all of us, it’s not just the cute and the charming that are important and valuable.

Vultures offer important ecological services. Through their consumption of carrion (dead animals), they reduce the spread of disease from dangerous and sometimes deadly pathogens such as tuberculosis, rabies, botulism, salmonella, cholera, and anthrax. Their extremely acidic stomach acid allows them to consume carcasses infected with these diseases without becoming ill. In addition to reducing the spread of pathogens, they recycle nutrients and remove odors from the landscape – and hazards from the road.

As valuable as they are, vultures have not always been appreciated. Their populations have been threatened in the past by people trapping and killing them due to erroneous fears that they spread disease. Vultures were trapped, poisoned, and shot by the thousands until the 1970s. Populations were also affected by the side-effects of the pesticide DDT, but have rebounded in recent decades. The largest current threat to our scavenging friends is lead shot from carcasses and gut piles left by hunters, and poisons used for pest control.

There are two species of vulture in Georgia – the turkey vulture and the black vulture. Turkey vultures have hairless red heads (this is much more hygienic when feeding in carcasses), brown to black feathers, and silver/gray bands on the underside of their wings when viewed in flight. Turkey vultures hunt by scent and have very advanced olfactory senses. The area of the brain that processes smells is unusually large in turkey vultures. Turkey vultures are monogamous, and mate for life or for many years.

Black vultures are slightly smaller than turkey vultures (a wingspan of 4.5-5ft vs 5-6ft), have hairless black heads, black feathers, and silver/gray “fingertips” on the underside of their wings when viewed in flight. Black vultures hunt by sight, or by following other vultures. They do not have the advanced olfactory senses that turkey vultures do. Black vultures are monogamous and highly social. They have strong social bonds with their family throughout their lives and exhibit intense family loyalty. They will feed their young for up to eight months after fledging and share food with relatives.

Both species of vultures can live more than twenty years. Since both species of vulture lack a voice box, their vocalizations are limited to raspy hisses and grunts (this probably doesn’t help their appeal). Vultures exhibit some fascinating, though off-putting behaviors. To cool themselves and to kill bacteria (remember that hardcore stomach acid) vultures defecate on their legs and feet. Their main defense tactic – which I find very effective – is projectile vomiting. I think we can all agree that vultures, like all wildlife, are best admired from a distance.

Regardless of whether you find vultures endearing, they are protected by both federal and state laws. The birds, their nests, and eggs cannot be killed or destroyed without proper permits. If you are having trouble with nuisance vultures contact your USDA Wildlife Services state office for advice and assistance.