Wandering through the tropical desert, avidly searching for a source of water to quench one’s thirst, the old fellow gives up as he surrenders himself on a rock nearby. Seemingly on the brink of death, taking his last few breaths, a large flock of large birds, appearing aggressive yet witty, gather high up in the sky. Flying around in circles, they wait for the alive to collapse and die before they can descend down.
This fictional perception of the vultures circulating over a dead creature, or waiting for it to die, is old folklore. However, gone are the days when such stories were believed to be true.
Soaring at high altitudes, typically in a circular motion, Vultures are hefty birds that rise in the sky with a lot of energy, traveling on warm columns of rising air, floating on these thermals. Circulating miles above the land, they search for carrions to feed on, making sure no predators are lurking nearby.
Gently soaring in the sky for hours, only occasionally flapping its wings, the serene flight of the Buzzards at high altitudes adds to the tranquility and beauty of the sky.
Quite a common sight at the woodlands and farms, the scavenging species constantly aviate at a height, flying around in circles. Are they in search of a delectable treat, or are they simply bumming around?
Observing the large, sooty black plumaged birds with bald heads circling around in the sky, we’d be wrong to say that these raptors are meandering in the sky.
They are actually looking around for carrions to feed on. Nevertheless, their profound role in the ecosystem cannot be undermined. Feeding on dead animals, rotten and partially decomposed creatures, the vultures cleanse the environment of bacteria and infectious diseases.
Contrary to the popular opinion that buzzards circle endlessly above the dead creatures, or perhaps are effortlessly gliding over a species that is just taking its last few breaths as they wait for it to die, the buzzards would then land on the ground to eat the creature that had just died.
These are merely false claims.
Here are the possible reasons the vultures might be circling around.
In reality, the vultures drift high in the sky to find a dead creature to feed on. If you see a vulture, or a group of vultures, circling around in the sky, there is a high probability they haven’t been lucky yet in their search for food, and the hunt is still persisting.
They might be circling around a dead creature, using their extraordinary sense of smell to assess how fresh the carcass is, before swooping down to feed on it. The food should be rotten enough to gorge the vultures but shouldn’t be too putrid. After all, like most species, vultures like to have the carrions freshly rotten.
Even after they find food, buzzards do not swoop down towards the ground right away. Extremely cautious about approaching their prospective meal, they would first closely observe the surroundings of the food source.
They need to make sure that the creature they’re targeting is actually dead. In addition, the area around should be clear of any predatory threats, so the buzzards need to ensure no potential danger is lurking behind the trees or fences.
After the buzzards have ensured that the carriers they’re eyeing on are safe to consume do they then only take a short flight downwards to the ground to enjoy their feast.
You might be amazed to know that Buzzards are not very experienced flyers. This often raises the question of their potential to stay aloft in the sky for long hours.
DID YOU KNOW?
Vultures have relatively weak wings that do not aid in flight!
Despite their ravenous appearance, vultures actually have relatively weak wings, though their wingspan extends to more than 6 feet. Rather boggle some, their wings do not considerably aid it in flight. However, the large surface area of the wings, forming a wide V, as the vulture opens its flight feathers, enables it to soar high up in the sky for longer durations.
Reaching a high altitude, the broad wingspan of the vulture allows it to cover a large area. Soaring in the sky peacefully, rarely flapping its wings, the keen sense of smell and sight lets the bird explore a substantial area of the ground in its diligent hunt for food.
Sighting food immediately might be challenging for the bird, hence requiring ample time amidst the air to locate a delectable treat.
While floating in the air, the buzzards keep monitoring the behavior of other vultures around. This helps them get a signal if other vultures have found a source of food or a new thermal has been located to help them in flight.
Birds that soar in the air without flapping their wings use a distinct mechanism to become airborne. They float on what are referred to as thermals. Thermals are updrafts of air formed by the air being heated on the ground level and gradually rising to a higher altitude.
As the air is heated, it floats up in bubbles or pockets of air, resulting in the formation of ascending air currents.
These air currents greatly aid the buzzards to fly at high altitudes. Once they rise on these air currents, the buzzards float or soar, typically in a circular formation, this helps them stay in alignment with the stream of the air.
From a distance, these vultures spiraling towards the sky seem like water boiling in a pot – hence they’re referred to as ‘kettle’.
However, what we observe from the ground is an entirely immaculate picture of the vultures surfing fluently in the sky, as they aviate around in circles, covering a large area. In reality, they are gliding effortlessly on a potent updraft of warm air, floating on it as it ascends into the sky.
Check out this Huicocy birding scope to get a seamless view of the vultures circling the sky.
Flying around in circles on the thermal, the buzzards search the area for some food. To move to a new location, they need to find another layer of air currents.
Vultures like the Turkey Buzzards typically use their vigorous sense of smell to locate a source of food. Right after they begin aviating in the air, they’re able to detect the presence of food on the land below by smelling it. Their sharp eyesight plays a secondary role in finding food.
DID YOU KNOW?
Vultures have a peculiar sense of smell, having the ability to sniff carcasses from up to a mile away.
As soon as the buzzards find their potential meal on the ground - usually in the form of carrions or rotten animals - they would first circle above the area before swooping down to eat. By doing so, they ensure that the land is safe from predators for them to drop down and ravenously enjoy their meal.
As soon as other buzzards in the flock see one of them descending down, they get the signal of the availability of food in the area. Following it, they all land on the ground, circle around the feast and enjoy it together.
Vultures are typically found in massive flocks, as they airborne on the solid thermal waves. Quite often, there is at least one or more red-headed Turkey vulture found amidst the flock of a relatively large number of black vultures.
DID YOU KNOW?
Whilst Turkey Vultures use their phenomenal sense of smell to detect the scents of rotten food, the Black vultures are a completely different case.
Incapable of detecting any smell, the Black Vultures rely on their keen sense of sight, hence flying at high altitudes to find some rotten carcasses when foraging for food. Turkey Vultures, on the other hand, soars far below to catch the odor of the carcasses.
Turkey Vultures are known to use their profound sense of smell to search for their food. Gliding in the air on the lower thermals, they are at quite a downscale altitude relative to their Black cousins. Whiffing as it glides, the vulture cautiously smells around to detect the stench of any dead animal around.
Above the Turkey vultures are the Black ones, who are just wandering around in circles aimlessly, simply keeping an eye on the Turkey vulture, disencumbering themselves from the job of looking for food. The Turkey vulture performs the primary role of searching for food, while the others simply follow its footsteps, aviating hundreds of feet above it.
As soon as the Turkey Vultures detect the vile stench of the carrion and descend towards it, the much more wild and aggressive Black Vultures follow the path, progressing at a much more rapid speed.
Very often, the feisty Black Vultures chase away the Turkish vulture, who made the efforts to locate the feast for them. The poor creature becomes a victim of its Black cousin’s raid and ends up getting the leftover.
Primarily carnivores, vultures are not very picky eaters and would consume the carcasses of a wide range of animals, including small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects as well as birds. As long as their prey is dead and partially rotten, the vultures are more than satiated with the food they find.
Despite their exemplary ability to smell the rotten food, they prefer fresher baits and carcasses over ones that are extremely rotten. The perfect form of caring for the vultures is when it just starts to reek a little bit, giving off a stinky odor. Then, when they have a choice, they will choose the fresher carrions, leaving aside the filthier ones.
DID YOU KNOW?
Dead skunks are amongst the favorite food of the buzzards. Their fondness for the dead creature can be attributed to the pungent smell they produce.
The appetite of the buzzards largely depends on their supply of food. During periods of abundant supply, they would feed on the carcasses of dead animals. Sometimes, there may be a shortage of carrions, so the vultures have to resort to the less delectable cow manure or feed on grasshoppers or small bugs.
When the food supply is ample, the buzzards would overheat and become so glutted that they have trouble swiftly soaring in the air. When this happens, they cannot become airborne until part of their food is partially digested. Till then, the vultures have to remain on the land.
They might become a vulnerable target for many of the predatory species during this time. If the vulture is tortured when gorged, it may end up throwing up on the attacker in order to lighten the load on its stomach and resume flight, soaring high up in the sky.
Due to the docile and timid nature of turkey vultures, they are not proficient predators. Their relatively slow flight makes it challenging for them to attack or lurk their prey, causing them to easily escape the attack.
A close analysis of their talons also reveals that they are quite bent and debilitated, making it almost impossible for the vulture to grasp and capture their target, let alone kill it.
Moreover, the Turkey vultures have a curved and blunted beak, making it arduous for the bird to pierce its beak into the animals and tear apart the flesh. As a result, Turkey Vultures have to wait till they find the animal dead and slightly decomposed to be able to dig into the treat.
Finding animals that lose their lives as a result of road accidents often becomes a scrumptious meal for the buzzards. They might not feed on the carcasses of the dead animal right away and wait for it to become slightly rotten.
A common underlying opinion regarding vultures is that they are repugnant and nasty animals. In addition, many people tend to be aversive towards vultures due to their obscene dietary habits.
Rightly so, it is the food of these animals that derives disgust for some people since they only feed on dead and rotten creatures.
However, vultures are an important element of the ecosystem, playing a vital role in clearing up the dead carcasses from the land, removing noxious diseases, infections and bacteria from our environment, and hence significantly mitigating the risk of diseases.
Ingesting large volumes of germs and bacteria, the body of the vulture serves as a cleansing mechanism. As the food filled with high levels of bacteria enters the body, the potent digestive juices kill all the germs present in the carcasses to ensure that the vulture itself might not be affected by any disease.
DID YOU KNOW?
The urine of vultures is an absolutely sterile fluid. They urinate on their feet to cleanse them of any bacteria and germs that adhere while feeding on the carrions.
Next time you see a group of vultures soaring effortlessly in the heights of the sky, you can tell that the birds are putting in a lot of effort as they float on a relatively strong thermal or wave of warm air rising from the surface of the Earth.
The incredibly fascinating species have far more to offer than their repulsive dietary habits. Their intensely sharp senses are highly valued, aiding in crime scenarios to locate the dead bodies and assess the time of death by analyzing how fast and eagerly the bird consumes the carcasses.
If you’re interested in reading up more on Vultures in particular, here’s a post you cannot miss out on detailing how powerful is the vulture’s smell exactly.
My name is Inigo and I'm the the founder of Bird Watching USA! I started Bird Watching with My father-in-law many years ago, and I've become an addict to watching these beautiful creatures. I've learnt so much over about bird watching over the years that I want to share with the world everything I know about them!
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