Red-headed vultures circling, clearing the land

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The first sign of spring may be the red-headed vultures circling overhead to clean up carcasses killed by high-speed cars that they can locate miles away with their keen sense of smell. . The flight of a red-headed vulture is easy to recognize by its lazy circle profile above its head in an effort to find dead bodies above municipal dumpsites picked up by the weekly collection of highway clean-up crews.

Red-headed vultures are very large birds with a sterilized 6-foot wingspan with a very dark color followed by a pale gray trailing edge.

Vultures have suffered from poor public relations ever since Charles Darwin called them very disgusting birds usually tainted with an aura of rotting flesh. They can get away with eating dead, putrid bodies with their bright red bald bare head, as pictured, which is a survival adaptation to reduce the risk of poultry feathers from contacting germs from spoiling corpses.

Many avid and dedicated birders are content to keep their distance, especially when vultures feed their young by regurgitating carrion into their mouths with throaty grunts and groans of exertion.

There are two groups of vultures that populate the universe today, providing an excellent example of convergent evolution while adapting to diverse conditions on several different continents.

Oddly enough, all of the Old World Vultures across the pond have absolutely no ability to smell, so they can only rely on vision to locate dead bodies. They must then hunt in a low altitude visual flight much like our local Harrier Hawk. They must use their legs and feet to grab prey-like birds and small mammals, a very specialized use of a vulture’s body to survive.

The New World vultures survived and increased in numbers due to the ability to locate the next meal with their noses and were joined by another species of vulture called the black (headed) vulture. Since the mid-19th century, the black (headed) vulture has expanded its range from the southern states to the New England coastal states on the east coast. They were recently identified on Buzzards Bay. That there is room for another new global species has been encouraged by conservation tagging programs.

Now having both red-headed and black-headed vultures with the ability to actively spin overhead for sanitation purposes will hopefully allow future generations to benefit from an improved environment and cleaner for the foreseeable future.

By George B. Emmons

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