Vultures: They may look a bit shabby, but they’ve got hearts

Black vulture1jpg

Black vulture.

By Dr. Ashley M. Long

As introduced in the last two issues of Timber Tales, we’ve developed a new natural history series that compares Louisiana wildlife with their animated counterparts. Given the key role that animals have played in American animation since the early 1900s, it may be hard to pick your favorite character, television show or movie. For many, “The Jungle Book” stands out as a particularly magical experience with big personalities, great storytelling and a catalog of memorable songs — just try not to sing “The Bare Necessities” as you read this article!

Released in 1967, “The Jungle Book” follows 10-year-old Mowgli as he travels from his adoptive home among wolves to a nearby village where it’s thought he may be safe from Shere Kahn, a man-eating Bengal tiger who will surely kill the boy and all who try to protect him. Mowgli is accompanied on his journey by a no-nonsense panther, Bagherra, and a fun-loving sloth bear, Baloo. Along the way the trio faces off with a hungry Indian python named Kaa, marches with the jungle’s raucous elephant patrol and spars with King Louie the orangutan (voiced by New Orleans native Louis Prima) and his mischievous monkey troop. In a scene that is my personal favorite, they receive a serenade, as well as help, from a quartet of shaggy vultures.

Turkey vultures1jpg

Turkey vulture.

Named Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy and Dizzy, the vulture characters have (almost) featherless heads, bare legs and hooked raptor beaks. We meet the crew as they perch among the branches of a dead tree and infamously discuss what they’re going to do next (“Now don’t start that again!”). After singing a rousing rendition of “That’s What Friends Are For,” the vultures help Mowgli fend off an attack by Shere Kahn and eventually see Mowgli, Bagherra and Baloo on their way.

Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy and Dizzy most closely resemble a species called the white-rumped vulture, one of nine Old World vultures native to India. They are described as a medium-sized vulture with a wingspan of around 7 feet and mostly black or dark brown plumage aside from their white-colored rump, neck-ruff and underwing coverts. Their preferred habitat is open fields and wooded lots, but they will also frequent rubbish dumps near towns and cities, as their diet consists almost exclusively of carrion. Similar to many raptors, the white-rumped vulture is considered monogamous and will typically stay with its chosen mate for life, which can be 10 to 20 years.

When “The Jungle Book” was filmed, the white-rumped vulture was one of the most abundant large birds of prey in the world. However, since the mid-20th century, the species has experienced severe population declines because of hunting, loss of large ungulate populations and increased removal of carcasses from the landscape, and poisoning from diclofenac, a veterinary drug given to livestock that causes renal failure in scavenging birds. The species is now considered critically endangered, and there are on-going efforts to conserve the white-rumped vulture, as well as other vulture species, in India and Southeast Asia.

Most of us will never see a white-rumped vulture in the wild, but we are lucky to have two species of vultures in Louisiana with similar characteristics, behavior and habitat requirements as their animated counterparts and their Southeast Asian cousin. These local vultures are the turkey vulture and the black vulture. The turkey vulture is a large, long-winged bird with blackish-brown plumage, a red unfeathered head and a hooked ivory bill. Black vultures are similar in appearance but have sooty black plumage, a bare black head and a black bill. Both turkey and black vultures are large, with wingspans generally between 4½ and 6 feet. The easiest way to tell the difference between turkey and black vultures in flight is to look at their wings. Turkey vultures typically fly with their wings set in a V shape and, from underneath, their flight feathers appear silver gray, giving them a two-toned appearance. Black vultures have broad wings with silvery patches on their wingtips and short tails that do not extend beyond their toes.

Turkey vultures are the most widely distributed vulture species in the world. Their breeding range extends from southern Canada to southernmost South America; however, in the U.S., black vultures are more numerous. Similar to the white-rumped vulture, turkey and black vultures are scavengers. However, turkey vultures have a better sense of smell, so black vultures often follow turkey vultures to fresh carrion. Unlike their musical animated counterparts, vultures lack a voice box (called a syrinx in birds), so they can’t sing you a song when you’re down on your luck. But they can hiss, grunt, stomp and make loud noises with their wings, which they’ll do to deter potential predators and while feeding. Despite their appearance, vultures have no real incentive to harm humans and typically fly off when approached. As Buzzie laments, they may look a bit shabby, but they’ve got hearts … or at least a healthy sense of fear.

In the U.S., turkey and black vultures prefer mixed farmland and forest, but they have adapted well to life with humans and can be found almost anywhere. Like Buzzie, Flaps, Ziggy and Dizzy, both turkey vultures and black vultures are highly social and may roost in groups that range in size from a few birds to a few thousand birds. Their roosting habitat is usually large dead trees, but they will sometimes nest in caves or on rocky outcroppings. Depending on the size of the group, vultures can damage roost trees given their highly acidic feces. But their benefits certainly outweigh the costs. Just think of all rotting carcasses that would be lying around, especially along roadways, if we didn’t have turkey and black vultures in Louisiana! In addition, vultures prevent the spread of disease by consuming and killing deadly bacteria as they digest food in their highly acidic stomachs. How cool is that!

Vultures are a fascinating and invaluable species anywhere they occur, and we hope this article has piqued your interest to learn more. Stay tooned for the next installment, and contact me at if you have a specific request for a comparison between a cartoon character and its real-life counterpart!

— Dr. Ashley M. Long is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the LSU AgCenter.

3/19/2020 8:36:35 PM
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