Vulture Culture

By Sandy Masuo

King Vulture (Photo Credit: Jamie Pham)

King vulture (Photo by Jamie Pham)

As scavengers, vultures are often associated with death, making them both off-putting and fascinating to us. They have been revered as deities that can travel between the realms of the living and the dead, and persecuted because of the misperception that they are dirty and carry disease. Contrary to the latter myth, vultures are  fastidious birds that help control the spread of disease by cleaning up decomposing carcasses. Discover the reality behind these myths and misconceptions at the Los Angeles Zoo, home to five vulture species.

California condor Dolly with L.A. Zoo General Curator Beth Schaefer, January 2015 (Photo by Tad Motoyama)

California condor Dolly with L.A. Zoo General Curator Beth Schaefer, January 2015 (Photo by Tad Motoyama)

Though they are frequently grouped with raptors, vultures are unique. Like other birds of prey, they are strictly carnivorous, however their diet consists almost exclusively of carrion and they therefore have many distinctive adaptations that set them apart. Because they do not need to kill their food, they lack the powerful talons for which raptors are named. Their sharp, hooked beaks are primarily for ripping apart carrion, and because they plunge their heads and necks into carcasses, the lack of feathers makes them less susceptible to bacteria and viruses. Their digestive systems feature strong acids that break down tough tissues and kill pathogens. Also, unlike solitary hunters such as hawks and eagles, they feed communally and lead complex social lives.

“They are always group feeding with other vultures and also other predators that could take them out, so they have to read every situation and be one flight ahead of everything,” comments the L.A. Zoo’s Curator of Birds Mike Maxcy. “Eagles sometimes will share with vultures for large carrion but all the other birds of prey would not tolerate others near their kill. And vultures have to. They have to study and understand their surroundings, be completely aware, and—like humans—know their place in the hierarchy.”

Perhaps the most famous of the Zoo’s vultures, the California condor is a species that cannot be seen on exhibit. The L.A. Zoo was one of the founding organizations in the California Condor Recovery Program, and these remarkable birds remain a cornerstone of the Zoo’s conservation work. Though none are on exhibit, visitors to the California Condor Rescue Zone can watch the birds on the condor cam, and might catch a glimpse of Dolly, the Zoo’s special California condor ambassador. The future may hold new possibilities for sharing this iconic species with the public.

Black vulture in flight at the L.A. Zoo's World of Birds Show (Photo by Jamie Pham)

Mort, a black vulture, in flight at the L.A. Zoo’s World of Birds Show (Photo by Jamie Pham)

The only Andean condor on exhibit at the Zoo is Leadbottom. Leadbottom hatched at the Zoo on June 18, 1983 and had to be hand raised because he kept falling out of his nest—hence his name. After many years with the World of Birds Show, he began having some health issues, so he retired to his current exhibit in the South America section. KC and Sunshine are members of the World of Birds Show cast.

Mort, also a member of the Bird Show cast, is a northern black vulture. Black vultures and turkey vultures are the most common vultures in North America. Both are large birds with wingspans of five to six feet—but that’s only about half the size of America’s largest flying bird: the California condor. Black vultures maintain close social ties with their extended families throughout their lives.

Excluding Andean and California condors, the king vulture is the largest of the New World vultures with a wingspan of about six feet. In Mayan culture, the king vulture was seen as a messenger between humans and the gods, and was sometimes depicted as a god with the head of a bird and the body of a man. Two colorful king vultures are on exhibit in the South America section of the Zoo—a female next door to the crested screamers and a male next door to the anteater. Boz is featured in the World of Birds Show cast.

Cape Vulture with Chick (Photo By: Jamie Pham)

Cape vulture with chick (Photo by Jamie Pham)

The L.A. Zoo has had a long history with Cape vultures, located across from the South America picnic area (and often missed by visitors). [UPDATE: Since 1996, some 40 eggs have been laid and about 20 chicks fledged.] These majestic birds can reach up to 8.5 feet in wingspan and up to 24 pounds. They are gregarious and nest in colonies. “With the Cape vultures being our only African species, they are completely different than the New World species in attitude,” comments Maxcy. “It’s our only exhibit that houses a flock and a great opportunity to get to see their social interactions.”

International Vulture Awareness Day takes place on September 3 this year (2016). The recognized holiday began with separate initiatives started by the Birds of Prey Programme in South Africa and the Hawk Conservancy Trust in England. Interest in these unique and vitally important birds has grown, and so have the number of organizations participating in IVAD. Learn more at www.vultureday.org and be sure to check www.lazoo.org for IVAD activities at the Zoo!

Originally published in the September-October 2016 edition of Zooscape.