Vultures are generally seen as unpleasant, disgusting birds that eat dead flesh but they do a very useful job.
Vultures are birds which feed off the bodies of dead animals. The very word ‘vulture’ conjures up a picture of disgusting, beady-eyed carrion eaters picking around the carcass of some dead creature, or hovering waiting for their victim to die.
The image of flocks of vultures circling overhead in the desert waiting for their ‘lunch’ to die is one that is show quite often in old western type movies. The captured cowboy will be staked out on the ground and the vultures will be circling around, getting closer and closer to him as he gets nearer death.
These birds have a bad reputation but they have a useful purpose. They rid the world of dead bodies and reprocess the meat. This sounds disgusting but so are dead animal (and human) bodies if left untended.
Vultures are found in many areas of the world across many terrains and in different climates. They are found in hot desert areas but also in cold mountainous areas. They are often seen in groups, or ‘venues’, on the ground and in the air in flocks, or ‘kettles’.
The bald heads of these creatures are thought to be important for temperature control in the bird and those sharp, hooked beaks are especially well adapted to tearing flesh.
Vultures can be divided into two main groups: New World and Old World species. Old World varieties include European, Asian and Africa species. This particular group finds its food mostly by sight, while the New World group, found in the Americas, uses scent as its main method of finding food. They can smell a carcass from very high up in the sky and circle down on it.
Many species of vulture are fast disappearing and this is most prominent in India and Pakistan where their numbers have declined by 95% in the past few years. The main reason for this is poisoning from a steroidal drug called diclofenac which is used on animals.
The disappearance of these creatures may cause series problem in countries where religious rites entail leaving dead bodies for vultures to consume. The Parsi religion found mostly in Iran and India builds huge towers where the dead are put to rest so that the birds can consume them and take them away.
In northern Indian and Tibet there are areas where the ground is frozen all year round, so it would be impossible to dig graves for burial, so the bodies of humans and animals are laid out for the vultures to east and disposed of that way. This is known as sky burial.