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Happy International Vulture Awareness Day!

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A dark silhouette flies high overhead, wings outstretched, delicately teetering in the wind. It circles over roadways and fields, silently surveying. Sometimes a group of them descend to the ground, hopping unsteadily, drawn in by something they detected from far away: carrion.

What are these hulking creatures? Vultures!

Vultures are unfortunately quite a misunderstood species. With their hunched silhouettes, beady eyes, and often featherless heads, many find them frightening. They’re largely unable to produce any calls or sounds aside from a few rasps, hisses, and grunts due to their lack of a voice box. Their diet primarily consists of carrion (decaying animals), so some people unfortunately find them repulsive in addition to frightening.

Even their name – vulture – is often used disparagingly to describe someone who is greedy and willing to crookedly gain from someone else’s troubles.

However, we are often the beneficiaries of vultures’ habits. Vultures are nature’s clean-up crew. As scavengers, they provide an essential service to the ecosystem. Their highly acidic stomachs enable them to digest all kinds of carrion – even those that carry diseases. Doing so neutralizes those pathogens, such as tuberculosis, rabies, and anthrax, and prevents their spread. Without vultures and other scavengers, we would be at much greater risk of exposure to these harmful illnesses.

While that fact might not be enough to improve a vulture’s image to some, look no further than the scientific name of the most common vulture species in the U.S., the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). This Latin term can be translated to “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze”, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. What a lovely nod to their role in the ecosystem!

Vultures are often mistaken as a threat to people or pets. Turkey vultures almost never attack live animals. Black vultures are known to do this on occasion, but certainly not to humans and very rarely to pets. However, there are many threats facing vultures, including secondary poisoning. If a vulture consumes the carcass of an animal that has died after exposure to poisons or after being killed with lead bullets, they too become exposed to those toxins. Rodenticide poisoning, lead poisoning, and pesticides are common threats to the survival of vultures around the world. Due to the misperception that they might cause harm to humans and pets through predation or disease, people often wrongly kill vultures.

This is where you come in! Every year on the first Saturday of September is International Vulture Awareness Day. This year on September 3rd … look up! Appreciate your airborne neighbors, your clean-up crew, your silent and soaring “purifiers”, and tell people about how fascinating, beneficial, and beautiful vultures really are.