Skip to main content

2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate? Vultures, like Modoc!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Saturday, September 1st is officially Vulture Awareness Day!
Modoc is a very special vulture! Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

At Woodland Park Zoo, we appreciate vultures like Modoc, our 32-year old turkey vulture, every day! Why? Because vultures all over the world help keep our ecosystems healthy and clean.

Vultures don’t hunt live prey. They’re mostly scavengers that feed on dead animals which would otherwise rot. The acids in their stomach are so strong that they can neutralize all kinds of dangerous germs and bacteria—which helps minimize the spread of disease to other animals and to people.

Featherless or lightly feathered heads help vultures, like Modoc, keep clean while feeding on carcasses.
Photo by Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo.

Even though it might not look like it at first glance, vultures are also role models for good hygiene! Carcasses can be messy, so featherless or lightly feathered heads and necks help to keep them clean as they feed. Some vultures actually urinate on their own legs. Yeah, it sounds a little gross, but scientists think it is actually a defense against disease. Acids in the bird’s urine likely kill off any harmful bacteria they may have picked up while standing on dead rotting animals to feed.

An Egyptian vulture uses a rock as a tool to crack open an egg. Photo by Anne Wipf via DeviantArt at HermitCrabStock

Vultures are also super smart. Tool use was once seen as something only humans were capable of, as this skill shows a higher level of intelligence and problem-solving ability. Now we know that there are quite a few animals that also have this ability, like chimpanzees, elephants and sea otters to name a few. And our feathered friends are no exception. Research has found that birds like crows and some parrots are capable of tool use. The Egyptian vulture has been observed to use pebbles and rocks to break open large eggs of other birds, which they occasionally feed on. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the definition of “bird-brained”?

Measure your wingspan at the zoo's Wildlife Theater next to the raptor barn. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo
Turkey vulture, Modoc, has an impressive wingspan! Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo

Finally, when it comes to wingspan, vultures are among the kings of the sky! Turkey vultures, like Modoc, can have a wingspan that is nearly 6 feet wide. But some of the other vulture species—including condors, which are a kind of vulture—make the top ten list for largest wingspans of all flying birds alive today. The Andean condor, for instance, can have a wingspan of more than 10 feet wide! The only flying birds that can beat that are a couple species of albatross and pelican.

The Andean condor has the largest wingspan of all birds in the vulture family. Photo by Pedro Szekely via Flickr

As a whole, vultures, including condors, have experienced dramatic population declines in the last few decades. This is happening all over the world in many varied ecosystems where vultures live and has driven many species to near extinction. One of the primary causes, other than poaching and general habitat loss, is dietary toxins. This includes everything from chemicals, pesticides and veterinary drugs that vultures ingest when they feed on carcasses of animals that were recently treated, to lead pieces which are left over in carcasses of animals that were shot by hunters. But hope is not lost. Many countries, including the U.S., are making efforts to prevent these toxins from entering the food chain by regulating the use of certain chemicals and by promoting alternatives to lead shot for used hunting.

You can see Modoc plus many other raptors in the Earn Your Wings flight program. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

There are so many reasons why we appreciate vultures like Modocand we need to do all we can to protect them! If you want to show your appreciation in person, Modoc can often be seen as part of the Earn Your Wings flight program at Woodland Park Zoo’s Wildlife Theater. Located next to the zoo’s raptor barn, and you can see these amazing birds take flight every day through the end of September, except Wednesdays, at 11:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m