Vultures can reach heights of several thousand feet and can soar for hours without flapping their wings.
Among the residual signs we have of the Europeans exploration and settlement of North America are a few Old World animal names that don’t fit their New World counterparts.
For instance, the animals our European forefathers and early settlers called buffalo are actually bison. True buffalo are the water buffalo which reside in parts of Asia and the African Cape buffalo, found in a number of non-desert areas in Africa.
If you’ve traveled through the western U.S., you may have thought you saw antelope, but you actually saw pronghorns. There are a number of species of antelopes in the world, but none are native to North America. (Impalas and wildebeests are among the better known types of antelopes, most of which are found in Africa.)
Probably no New World creatures have been victimized more by an Old World misnomer than vultures, which are commonly referred to as “buzzards.” Before delving into why this is an inaccurate – and unfair – case of misnaming, here’s more about the birds.
The type of vulture most common in Missouri is the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), although black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are also seen in the state. Turkey vultures are so named because their reddish, featherless heads and dark bodies somewhat resemble a turkey.
The bulk of a vulture’s diet consists of carrion – dead animal flesh. Turkey vultures use good vision and a highly developed sense of smell to find food. Black vultures also have good vision and compensate for a lesser-developed sense of smell by finding turkey vultures and following them to the nearest dead-animal meal.
One of a vulture’s well-known traits is its soaring ability. Vultures can reach heights of several thousand feet and can soar for hours without flapping their wings. They take advantage of updrafts produced when wind blows over hills and ridges and they also use rising columns of warm air called “thermals.”
A vulture’s ability to soar caught the eye of early explorers and colonists and this brings us back to the bird being misnamed “buzzard.” Buzzard – and the word it’s derived from, the French word “buisard” – was originally a collective word for hawks. Somewhere in this word’s history, it developed a negative connotation. It’s thought this negativity may stem from the perception that hawks were not good for falconry and, thus, were deemed to be inferior.
When explorers and settlers came to the New World and saw large birds that soared like hawks, had a diet (rotting flesh) that was hardly considered appealing and had an appearance few considered beautiful, it’s easy to see how these birds were dubbed with a name associated with inferiority.
However, in terms of how vultures benefit humans, they are anything but inferior. While their food choice may not seem like glamorous to us, it’s very beneficial. Because of vultures, dead animals are cleaned up much quicker than if carcasses underwent the normal processes of decay. This means bacteria, vermin and other things associated with rotting carcasses also disappear faster than they would in a “vulture-less” environment.
People can learn more about vultures Feb. 24 at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Vulture Venture program at MDC’s Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery near Branson. This free event will be from noon to 5 p.m. at the hatchery, located at 483 Hatchery Road on the west end of Lake Taneycomo. Information about vultures and other birds found in Missouri can also be found at mdc.mo.gov