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King Vulture

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

February 20, 2023

The passing of one year into another is often filled with many meanings and feelings. But really the new year is just the first day of the civil year in the Gregorian calendar, which is used by most countries. But somehow, we still attach so many meanings and traditions to this first day of the calendar year, either right or wrong.

Many people look back and try to remember last year’s achievements but often only remember the failures. They look towards the new year with hopes of a new beginning and changing attitudes or make promises to themselves that you’ll do better. As a naturalist and wildlife biologist perhaps I look at things slightly differently. I see changing daylight. Just before Christmas on December 21 we had the winter solstice, when the earth’s northern hemisphere reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun. As a result, we have the shortest daylight and the longest nights. At the first of the year the days are now getting longer. Longer days is how I look at the new year.

So, this year perhaps you can add an additional New Year resolution. It’s not difficult to do. Just open your mind to new ideas and things. For example, most people don’t like vultures. Yep, you read that correctly, think differently about vultures. But first let’s take a closer look at these amazing birds.

Vultures are a group of birds that make a living by scavenging on carrion (dead animals). There are 23 different species of vulture, including the condors of the world. Here in the United States, we have two vultures, the Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture and the California Condor for a total of three species.

Many of the vultures have bare or naked heads and necks which often puts people off on their looks right away. Bare skin is thought to help the birds maintain a cleaner head especially when you consider they are sticking their heads into bodies of rotting flesh. And this makes some sense because they can reach with their beak most of their body to preen and clean their feathers but would be unable to reach their own head to preen. The bare head and neck also help the bird to thermoregulate their body temperature. On cold days they pull their head down tight to their body reducing the bare skin to outside temperatures and on hot days they stretch out their necks to expose the skin to allow for cooling.

Recently while photographing King Vultures (Sarcoramphus papa) I was once again reminded that vultures are amazing birds. The King Vulture lives primarily in tropical lowland forests from southern Mexico down through Central America into northern Argentina. I was staying in a lodge in the lowland tropical forests of Costa Rica. The days were hot and extremely humid. Temperatures during the day were in the high 80’s and it rained on and off throughout the day driving the humidity through the roof. There was just no way to stay cool in these hot and muggy conditions.

To photo the King Vultures, we had a short hike down a very muddy road. The last part of the walk was up a small hill. Not terribly steep but steep enough to make the muddy adventure challenging. The last thing you want to do is drop all your camera gear on the ground, let alone in the mud. Successfully navigating this last part led us to a well concealed blind with a narrow window across the front so we could put our camera lens out.  

Out in front of the blind was a small clearing in the forest jungle. It was early in the morning and there was already about 30 Black Vultures and 3 King Vultures visible. I couldn’t believe my eyes, right in front of us, not 75 feet away was the king of all the vultures. This magnificent looking black and white bird with a stunning yellow, red, blue, orange head and a bright white eye encircled with a red ring was right before my lens. This is something I have dreamed about many times.

For the next 3 hours over 20 King Vultures flew into the clearing. I took thousands of images of these amazing looking birds and thought about their natural role in this jungle forest habitat. How these birds are the front line of recycling and reducing the waste in a natural ecosystem. How they are able to find food by following the scent of rotting flesh. How they can eat things so putrid that it would kill you and me and I could go on and on about the virtues of the vultures.

Vultures in general are birds that fill an ecological niche that really is a thankless job but extremely important. So, this year let’s make a resolution to start to accept any and all things that may look or act differently from others and let’s start with the vultures of the world. Happy New Year. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the world to study wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com, facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at naturesmart.com.

The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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