In This Issue
Once Upon An Armadillo
Ducks In Our Own Backyard
The Mockingbird
WildSpeak! Debuts
The Victorious Vulture
A Letter From A Concerned Citizen
Book Review:: The Astonishing Armadillo
 
The Victorious Vulture
by Michele Dudas  

Many moons ago I lived on a rough and rugged ranch a couple of hours west of the DFW Metroplex. Although I was always the kid that was poking around under the bushes or in the creek, my real awakening to the natural world took place on the ranch.


There wasn’t much choice, actually. Cable TV wasn’t even a consideration for us nor was a private phone line. I shared my phone line with 3 other households. For you younger folks this was called having a “party-line.” No, we didn’t party; we didn’t even speak with each other. Come the weekend, though, we fought for time on that party-line. Getting a call out to Mom on a Sunday involved strategic planning of the kind the Army would have been proud of.


Our Wilderness Home
 
   

The ranch was a place that forced you to observe the wild world. There were hundreds of acres set in rocky hills so the rugged terrain was ideal for exploration. I was introduced to rattlesnakes and copperheads, giant centipedes and scorpions, cougars, coyotes and countless species of lizard.


I never knew what I’d find when I opened the door and stepped out into the world that was the ranch.  Jackrabbit, opossum, Ringtails and deer were regular visitors to the backyard. One day I was surprised to hear thumping going back and forth across my roof. I expected to see a large mammal on top of the house when I finally mustered up the courage to get a ladder and check it out. Instead I found myself eyebrows-to-skinny turkey feet. That was when I learned to respect really large birds!

   

Animals lived and died right outside the backdoor. It took me a while to understand and accept this fact. I grew up in the city. Wild animals like squirrels and birds would get hit by cars and I’d see them on the streets every once in while. I even took a couple home so I could play doctor and cure them. But in the city that I grew up in, there were folks whose job it was to remove those animals that had been the unfortunate victims of moving vehicles. On the ranch there was no such person but Mother Nature has devised her own ways of cleaning up the dead. Some of them are microscopic; others are quite a bit more visible. I’m going to leave you to ponder that for a minute while I tell you a little story.

The ranch I’m writing about was a working cattle ranch and the cows were just about as wild as the coyotes. These were no eat-feed-from-a-trough cows. They were throw-the feed-on-the-ground-and-run cows (the guy who owned them spent a couple of months in the hospital because he didn’t skedaddle quick enough one day). Spooky animals, those cows. You never knew what would set them off so your best bet was to dump the feed from the bed of your pick-up truck and then beat a hasty path on out of there.


A Rude Awakening
 

Late in the day one Saturday in spring I noticed an “expecting” cow hanging around the house and barn area. She was huge and looked like she’d give birth any minute. She seemed so uncomfortable and I had the feeling she was hanging around the house for comfort. I tried to call the man who owned the cattle but the darned party-line was all congested and I never could get a line out (hard to imagine now, isn’t it? We’re all so connected and get anything we want almost instantly). As dusk approached I could see what “the boys” out west called a “blue-norther” blowing in. I went to bed during a raging storm and vowed to go check on that mama cow the next morning. I just knew in my gut that cow was going to give birth during that monster storm. The next morning I went out to find her.

The sun had been up for quite a while when I went out to track the cow.  It was a warm, humid morning and I found her out in the sun in an open area behind the barn. I was hoping I’d find a mama and her calf. I didn’t. I found the cow but she had died and the calf was nowhere to be seen. Animals had been at the cow during the night and I was pretty upset. I cussed the party-line for a while as I observed the fallen bovine. She was a mess.

After some tears and choice words I noticed her stomach move. Holy smoke, I thought, the calf is alive! I can save it! I went around to the back end of the cow and in that terrible mess, much to my amazement, I saw a “gunk-covered” leg protruding from the cow. Hmm. I grabbed hold of the ever-so-thin leg and began to slowly pull on it. Wounded leg or no, I was gonna save that baby cow! I won’t go in to the gross details (it was plenty gross, let me tell you), but the animal was alive so I grabbed it with both hands and gave it all I had. Out came….a Turkey vulture!!!

You read it correctly, it was a vulture and it was about as happy as human walking barefoot across sand burrs. I was shocked! I was speechless! The vulture had its own feelings, though. I was the scary predator in this scenario and that vulture began to give me grief of a kind I did not know was possible! First, it smacked me with its wings. I won’t get too graphic here but that was the second nastiest mess I have ever had meet up with my body. Then, the vulture turned to face me and delivered onto my little ole rescue-the-animal-self, the nastiest, gunkiest, smelliest mess (the winner in the “Nasty Stuff Encountered by Michele” contest), I have ever met up with. I had no idea, at the time, what was going on or what would come next so I beat a path back to the house.


An Interesting and Misunderstood Bird  
   

Years later, when I began buying every book about North American birds that I could get my hands on, I would learn than vultures can, when threatened, regurgitate their undigested food and crop contents. If you’re right up in their faces, like I was, you will have an experience that you won’t soon forget. If you come across vultures feeding on a carcass, back away!  You never know when you’re going to get “gunked.” The vultures, though, are just doing what they are made to do.


Why is she telling us all this stuff, you might ask? Because I get frequent calls about vultures (some folks call them buzzards) and people have many misconceptions about them. Strange-looking creatures that they are, vultures are a tremendously important part of an ecosystem. The entertainment industry has helped create many myths about vultures. Contrary to popular belief, vultures do not attack people or other animals. They like the dead, stinky stuff. I had a call this past week from a woman whose neighbor was shooting at vultures that he was convinced were killing his chickens. Nope, not vultures. Vultures may like chicken but they like it dead! Twice this past summer I received calls from golfers at a local country club golf course. They were certain a group of vultures were about to descend and attack. No sir, not gonna happen. Like I said, vultures like their food stinky. Hmm, those were hot days and those guys were in the mid-day sun….

Turkey vulture
 
 
   

I’ve also received calls from frightened homeowners wanting to know what to do about vultures “sitting on the roof of our house leaned back with their wings spread out.” Vultures can look rather ominous when they sit back and sun themselves and that’s just what they are doing, catching a few rays.

 

Cool Vulture Facts  
   
  • Vultures are one of the few birds in North America that can smell.

  • The heads of vultures are basically bald. This is a great adaptation as it prevents diseases of the head area from bacteria that are on the carrion (rotten stuff) that vultures eat.
  • Vultures are not like raptors; they have weak feet and cannot carry off the carrion they wish to eat. They eat it where they find it.

  • The Turkey vulture often directs its urine right onto its legs.  This serves two very important purposes.  In the summertime, wetting the legs cools the vulture as the urine evaporates (vultures cannot sweat like we do).  In addition, this urine contains strong acids from the vulture's digestive system which kill any bacteria that may remain on the bird's legs after stepping on its meal.

  • Turkey vultures nest on the ground and in cave-like places.  They do not construct a traditional "nest," but rather scratch out an indentation in the soil.  Vulture nests are often found in abandoned barns and sheds, which provide safe hiding places similar to a cave or hollowed log.
   

Vultures are intelligent animals with wonderful personalities. They will eat garbage and this is why we see them around dumps and such. But, carrion (dead animals), are gourmet meals for vultures; they are not going to carry off FiFi or your chickens for a mid-day meal. You know, I’d much rather the vultures clean up the messy stuff than me!