Vultures are harmless, despite the chilling role they play in stories and myths. They dine mostly on dead animals and have no incentive to attack humans. In fact, vultures are beneficial for people because they are extremely efficient at removing human and animal waste from our towns, villages and roads.
An Old Friend
There are two categories of vultures: the Cathartidea, or New Wold vultures and the Gypinae, or Old World vultures. There are 15 species of Old World vultures and they can be found in Africa, Asia and Europe. Old World vultures belong to the same family as the hawk and eagle. There are seven species of New World vultures found in North and South America. The Old World and New World vultures are not closely related but are believed to have independently evolved in similar ways.
Watch for Projectile Vomit
Despite their intimidating presence, vultures are pretty harmless. They have no incentive to attack humans and they lack the physical attributes that could pose a threat. Although they are carnivorous, most vultures feed only on animals that are already dead. Some vultures will spew projectile vomit as a defense mechanism, which is about the extent of their hostile behavior. While gross, it is hardly life-threatening.
Nature's Garbage Disposal
Vultures are some of nature's greatest recyclers of waste. For this reason they are valuable for the environment and for people. Vultures are often found near towns because people produce a significant and reliable stream of food. Garbage, roadkill and animal raising all provide ample feeding opportunities for the vulture. Without vultures, our roads would be littered with roadkill. Communities and natural ecosystems would suffer from their absence as animal waste would accumulate.
Vultures are Vulnerable
A number of Asian vulture species are endangered and heading toward extinction. While loss of habitat due to the expansion of human civilization is a factor, the leading cause has been traced to an a drug called diclofenac. Diclofenac was an anti-inflammatory drug given to livestock. When vultures feed on carcasses of cattle that have been treated with diclofenac, they die from kidney failure. The drug has been banned, but existing stocks remain. Conservationists are hoping to gather vultures into captive breeding programs to protect them until the drug is eradicated.
- Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy: The Vulture: Our Golden Purifier
- National Geographic News: Many Asian Vultures Close to Extinction, Survey Finds
- Animal Planet: Birds of Prey: Vulture
- PubMed.org: Evolutionary History of New and Old World Vultures Inferred from Nucleotide Sequences of the Mitochondrial Cytochrome B Gene
- Anup Shah/Digital Vision/Getty Images