Vultures aren't the most appealing of creatures. They're not colorful or pretty by any means, but rather big, ugly things that feast on the flesh of dead animals.
But vultures can be beneficial to our world -- scary-looking or not.
Dot Bambach is a volunteer with U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, conducting bird counts, leading field trips and in her spare time becoming an expert on the vulture. She speaks at the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society meeting Thursday.
Bambach explains how to love -- or maybe just better appreciate -- the vulture.
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Question. Do vultures get a bum rap?
Answer. They do get a bum rap. They're eating dead stuff and roadkill all the time, so it's not particularly alluring. The dog is considered the man's best friend, but we could say it's actually the vulture and the termite. Without those two animals the earth would be covered in decaying flesh and vegetation. Really, vultures are the garbagemen of nature.
Q. How did you get interested in vultures?
A. I got interested because I'm a volunteer for U.S. Fish and Wildlife. That's the organization that maintains our national wildlife refuges. One of the things I do is to monitor nesting wood storks. Wood storks are endangered. If you've ever seen a wood stork, they're big birds. Their head and neck are bare skin. They have a fluffy collar of feathers. They're voiceless. All they can do is hiss and wheeze. They have a lot of physical characteristics similar to vultures. Until recently, they thought the closest relatives were vultures. A recent study suggests that may not be the case. But that's what got me interested in vultures.
Q. What surprised you when reading about vultures?
A. They're obligate scavengers. Now, lions are obligate carnivores, meaning that's what they do to survive. They can only be carnivores. If you look at vultures as a family, they're the only animals that are obligate scavengers. They have to do that.
Q. They're cursed to pick at roadkill?
A. Once you evolve to find and consume carrion, you have to give up characteristics that would make you a good hunter of live prey.
Q. So they've just adapted to eating roadkill? How are they immune to disease?
A. They have very strong stomach acid. That's one of the ways they do mankind a favor. They curtail the spread of disease.
Look at situations in mass disasters where there's so much rotting flesh around diseases become a problem, water becomes polluted. Vultures keep the spread of disease at bay.
In southeast Asian countries, three of what were once the more common species of vulture are in such decline they'll probably go extinct in our lifetimes.
The cause is an anti-inflammatory drug they give to cattle. When the cattle die, the vultures find them. This anti-inflammatory is fatal to the vultures.
You think of some of these countries and the masses of garbage there. What's going to clean that up?