Tag Archives: turkey vultures

Vultures’ immune systems let them scarf down carrion

Published March 2, 2015 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2015 Susan Scott


During my recent visit to the Portland Audubon House in Oregon, I fell in love with a turkey vulture named Ruby.

This wasn’t the first time the species captured my heart.

While sailing in the Gulf of Cali­for­nia from 2008 to 2013, I learned to pay attention to the big black birds with bald red heads. Their soaring and cactus-top perching often led me to wildlife spectacles I would otherwise have missed.


For example, I once followed a flock of circling vultures to a secluded beach and found them eating a huge, freshly dead sea turtle, intact except for a missing head. Seeing the birds poking their featherless heads deep into the neck hole was at first disconcerting, but soon I viewed it as recycling at its most natural.

Most people think of turkey vultures as harbingers of death and disease, but it’s just the opposite. The species never attacks live prey, and by eating the tissue of dead animals, vultures prevent disease.

These scavengers have tough immune systems that fight off botulism, anthrax, salmonella and cholera.

Some religious groups revere vultures, believing the birds release souls from bodies. Tibetan Buddhists have “sky burials” where vultures eat the dead, and Zoroastrians offer their dead to the birds on a raised platform.

Turkey vultures

The turkey vulture’s scientific name, Cathartes aura, fits such veneration. The words mean “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”

The turkey vulture get its name from the head’s resemblance to that of a turkey, but the two species aren’t related. In the U.S. people often call vultures buzzards, but “buzzard” is part of the common name of several hawks in Europe.

The turkey vulture has a keen sense of smell, so sensitive that vultures avoid piercing the scent gland when eating skunks.

As to the turkey vulture named Ruby, someone stole her as a chick in 2007. After about six months Ruby escaped her abductor and had the good fortune to fly to an Oregon farm where she followed the owner around and landed on her arm.

The woman called the Audubon Society of Portland, and they gave Ruby a safe and loving home at their Wildlife Care Center.

Workers there (wearing leather shields to protect their arms from Ruby’s sharp claws) frequently bring the bird out to the public. She needs social time, a volunteer explained, with members of what she now considers her own species: people.

Portland has an outstanding Audubon center, five minutes from downtown. For a memorable experience, stop in and say hello to a friendly vulture named Ruby.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean
Watch”, for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, www.staradvertiser.com

©2015 Susan Scott