(Un)Welcome guests

It’s really sad to me that some animals get a bum rap.  I mean, really.  People just look at them and go, “eww.”  It’s true.  You know it is.  There are just some animals that won’t make it to the cover of glossy magazines.  They’ll never be in the supermarket tabloids next to pictures of Brad and Angelina.  Cockroaches, for example.  No one watches nature videos and thinks, “Awww, so cuddly” when they see cockroaches run across the screen.  It doesn’t help that there’s always creepy music playing when you see them, but they’re just not pretty.  On the other hand, things like Pandas and peacocks and pretty tropical frogs get to represent conservation groups and television networks.  That just cracks me up, actually.  “I watched this great show last night on the cockroach channel.”  Great image.

Anyway, some animals just don’t get that kind of press.  For instance, around here, we’ve got the vulture.  Well, in truth, around here, we’ve got two species of vulture:  the Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture. I was out at the Carolina Raptor Center over the weekend and watched the vultures and I watched people watching the vultures.  These birds just don’t get any respect.  Now Turkey Vultures are a bit clunky on the ground, but they make up for it with some of the most graceful flying that you’ll ever see.  They are experts at riding thermals, rising masses of warm air.  You can watch a Turkey Vulture fly for a long time and never even see it flap.  Black Vultures are good, but not quite as majestic in the air as Turkey Vultures.  There is a trade-off for being so graceful, though, Turkey Vultures also have very exposed red skin on and around their heads that accentuates just how odd looking most scavengers really are.  Black Vultures get to be a little bit more subdued in the coloration patterns.

Black Vultures, though not as impressive, as still cool in their own way.  Throughout their range, these birds are nesting opportunists, which means that they’re able to use all sorts of different locations for building their nests and having their (ugly) kids.  In some parts of their range, these birds have been able to take advantage of the fact that humans have altered the environment in all sorts of ways.  One of the biggest and most profound things we do (at least in terms of the Vulture) is to put up big buildings.  These create ledges and space right in the middle of the city (where the vultures can take advantage of squirrels and opossums that have been hit by cars).

Hill, J.R. III and P.R. Neto. 1991.  Black Vultures nesting on skyscrapers in Southern Brazil. Journal of Field Ornithology 62:  173-176.

These ledges actually provide great opportunities to get some close-up views of some amazing birds.  The only downside comes when they do things like hang out under intake vents (which apparently they did in Brazil).  While scavengers are very useful at cleaning up dead animals from around the city, they do often smell like the things they eat- and rotting squirrel isn’t one of the tastiest smells, ever.

Locally, changes to the skyline in uptown Charlotte have created the same sorts of habitat opportunities, as evidenced by a photo my mother took in her office.  Hmm…given that uptown is home to so many banks, maybe there’s something to be said for the increase in local vulture populations.

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About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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