Stephen R. Swinburne - Lifelong naturalist
First let’s deal with “ugly.” Vultures’ bald heads are what make them seem ugly to most people. But think about why they’re bald. Imagine thrusting your head inside the carcass of a white-tailed deer to reach the meat. A feathered head might capture bits of flesh, blood and gore and you end up with a face full bacteria and flies. Scientists believe that one reason vultures have evolved featherless heads is to aid in hygiene. A bald head stays clean and any remaining germs or bacteria are baked off by the sun. Vultures have also found that a bald head can help with temperature regulation. When it gets cold they can tuck their heads down to keep their neck covered with feathers. When it’s hot, vultures can extend their neck to expose bare skin. Their bald heads work so well that I wrote a poem about them.
It’s best to have no feathers,
When you stick your head in guts,
That way you don’t go walkin’ round,
Your noggin dripping schmutz.
Moving on to “eating nasty dead things,” the next time you see vultures eating a dead animal on the side of the road, be thankful! That carcass might be dead from rabies or contaminated with other harmful diseases. Vultures have the amazing ability to consume rotting and diseased flesh and stay healthy. It’s all in the stomach. Vultures possess very powerful stomach acids that destroy most bacteria and deadly viruses. In fact, vulture stomach acid is so strong it can dissolve metal! Except if that metal is lead shot -- many turkey vultures are killed every year by consuming shot that they encounter in dead deer. Vultures are the world’s natural “sanitation workers,” helping to stop the spread of disease.
I’m so appreciative of the work they do, I even wrote a poem about eating dead things:
I like my meat dead,
It’s best if it’s not moving.
Don’t want to see one final twitch,
I prefer it oozing
So, the next time you see a vulture circling in the noonday sky, think about the valuable and important clean up service this bird provides to us and to the environment. Maybe I’ll write a poem about that….
Steve Swinburne is a science writer, but as you can see from this Minute, he likes to write poetry too. In his book Ocean Soup, he offers verses in the voices of tide-pool animals, including the barnacle, sea urchin, sculpin, mussel, starfish, hermit crab, anemone, and lobster. For more about Steve's poetry, click here.
Poor Lonesome George was the very last of his giant tortoise species. When Dorothy Hinshaw Patent tells you about George tomorrow, you'll feel sorry about what happened to him. But he might get you thinking about other species that are now in danger of extinction.