Waste management

American black vulture
American black vultures work hard to keep the environment clean (Photo: Rusty One, Creative Commons license)

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The air wasn’t filled with the thumping of Rubbermaid® recycling bins or the metallic squeal of a dumpster being lifted high above a clumsy automated truck, so the last thing I expected to see when I came around the corner was three members of the neighborhood waste management team standing in the middle of the street. On their lunch break, no less. Then again, if you’re an American black vulture (Coragyps atratus), feasting on freshly squished squirrel is one of your duties as a sanitation worker.

Rather than rummaging down streets and alleyways, black vultures take to the skies. Catching a thermal updraft to soar at altitudes that provide sweeping views of the landscape below, they rely more on excellent eyesight than a keen sense of smell to do their job. It’s all for one and one for all in black vulture communities; when one bird hones in on area in need of garbage collection and begins to descend, the rest of the scrap-heap squadron will be on her tail, ready to pitch in.

black vultureEvery clean-up crew needs a uniform—something that hides stains while providing a little protection from the elements. Baggy-butt coveralls? No, thank you! Feathers provide insulation from both hot and cold weather, and how can you beat basic black for low maintenance and classic sophistication? Add to that a generous cowl neckline that can be pulled up to cover a bare pate, or down when it’s time to dive into a decontamination chore head first, and you’ve got a versatile and hygienic fashion statement.

They might not strike you as endearing creatures, but I have a soft spot for these scavengers. Back when I was living in Texas and had my wildlife rehabilitation permits, I received a nestling from the Texas A&M veterinary college. The little fellow reminded me of an old boyfriend—never mind why—so I christened him Jay and, unbeknownst to my landlord, turned the kitchen of my one-bedroom apartment into a vulture nursery. These birds don’t waste time building nests, preferring to lay and incubate their eggs on bare ground; my vinyl flooring must have seemed reassuringly familiar to Jay.

Once he was stabilized, I began to look for a rehabilitator elsewhere in the state who worked with this species. Blacks are more social than turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), our other North American species, so finding some siblings for this fuzzy beige “only child” was a high priority. Unfortunately—or maybe it’s a good thing—vulture chicks aren’t common visitors to wildlife rehabilitation centers. I don’t know if this is because vultures have small families, or because these birds are cautious parents who raise their young out of the spotlight of human activity, or maybe people are less likely to rescue a bird they think of as a harbinger of death.

As a result, it took several months to find a new foster parent for Jay. During that time, I learned there’s more to these dumpster-divers than meets the eye. For example, Jay investigated everything with that endlessly curious beak. Standing barefoot in front of the open refrigerator door, before long I’d see a wrinkled black head delicately shredding the cardboard soft drink carton, or I would feel a tickle and look down to see him attempting to pluck a loose thread from the hem of my pajamas. I would smile, charmed right down to the tip of my big toe, which Jay was trying to exfoliate, one hair at a time… and then I would realize he was practicing for the day when he would use that clever, hooked bill to tear open a carcass like an overstuffed Hefty® Cinch SAK, and I’d decide I didn’t really need a bedtime snack after all. They give you nightmares, you know.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to Gregory Moine and Anita363, who made their photos available for use under a Creative Commons license, allowing us to illustrate the black vulture’s feathered cowl-neck attire. Rusty One’s photographer’s original photo can be seen here.

8 Replies to “Waste management”

  1. I so enjoy reading your posts. You have a real knack of making the critters ‘real’ and I smiled a number of times during this one. thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. I remember the first time I saw a Turkey Vulture through the binoculars: I had no idea how unattractive they were! When they’re soaring above route 128 south of boston, it’s all grace and power and (seemingly) patience. I wouldn’t want to run into one of these guys in a dark alley

    1. I don’t have any personal experience raising or living with turkey vultures, Kathy, but I can tell you the young black vultures are actually kind of cute. They often have a rather winsome expression, and I find even the adults look a bit less intimidating than the turkey vultures.

      On the other hand, during one of my summer internships I worked with Andean condors and they were truly menacing birds. A 10’+ wingspan, powerful, fast and smart. You never went into the enclosure alone–always in pairs, minimum. One person would change out the food and water, and then clean up, the other would carry a “bully board” to protect both themselves and the other keeper. Unlike a lot of scavengers, Andean condors are not passive–they’re proactive. They would try to separate and come at you from two directions, making the bully board less useful. The idea was to get behind the prey/keeper so they could grab the Achilles tendon and rip, keeping you from being able to run away. If that were ever to happen, things would get pretty grisly very fast.

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