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In time for Valentine’s Day, some vulture love

Hi Keeper Stories Readers! I’m Josh. One of Zoo Atlanta’s friendly neighborhood Bird Keepers and I’m here to share a little bit of information about my favorite group of birds, vultures! I feel that vultures are vastly underappreciated, and I hope that by sharing some information about them, I may be able to make you, our readers, realize how important these birds are. When people think of vultures, they typically think of big birds eating dead things along the side of the road. And that is exactly what they do and is why they are so important to their habitats. As scavengers, they help keep our environment clean by eating decaying animals. It’s not the most glamorous job but I’m thankful somebody is doing it. These carcasses that vultures feed on are huge sources of bacteria and viruses that could cause other animals, and even humans, to get sick. Vultures are able to effectively control diseases by being nature’s cleanup crew. Thanks, vultures!

Vultures are found in most places around the world. The two big exceptions are Antarctica and Australia. While vultures are found in most places, there are two different groups of birds that look similar and play a similar role in the ecosystem but are actually not closely related at all! This is an example of convergent evolution. That’s when two unrelated groups of animals evolve independently to fill similar roles in different environments. The two types of vultures are New World vultures and Old World vultures. Let’s learn about the cool differences between them.

New World vultures live in the Americas, and they include the vultures you find right here in Atlanta, black vultures and turkey vultures.  Here at Zoo Atlanta, you can visit a beautiful example of a New World vulture, Roswell, a king vulture! Some vultures in this group have developed a great sense of smell to help locate food from afar. New World vultures lack syrinxes. That’s the bird equivalent to our voice box. When birds sing, the sounds come from the syrinx. Since these vultures don’t have one, the only noises they are able to make are hisses and grunts.

Found on the other side of the world are Old World vultures. They are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Examples include the griffon vulture and cinereous vulture. At Zoo Atlanta, you can find two species of Old World vultures, lappet-faced vultures and hooded vultures, both native to Africa. Unlike New World vultures, Old World vultures do not have a sense of smell and, instead, rely on keen eyesight to locate food. They also tend to have stronger feet than their New World counterparts do, and they use these to tear through tough animal skin.

Regardless of where they are found in the world, both New World and Old World vultures face serious challenges in the wild.  Vultures are the among the most at-risk birds in the world.  Loss of habitat and conflict with humans are the main threats to their survival. They need our help to survive! You can help our local vulture species by helping keep roadways clean and slowing down when you drive by vultures along the side of the road. I encourage you to all to take an extra few minutes next time you visit us at Zoo Atlanta, and observe our different vulture species and really appreciate all the hard, and really gross, work that these birds do for us!

Josh M.
Bird Care Team

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl