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 Emilie Chen, Montgomery County Planning Commission, Gregory Moine and Anita363, who made their photos available for use under a Creative Commons license.