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Bayou-Diversity (27 September 2020) Writing of the carnage at Vicksburg during the Civil War, a teenage girl living near what is now West Monroe made an interesting natural history observation. She stated: “…we hear from the best and most direct sources that the Yankee dead lie in heaps about our entrenchments; it is horrible to relate, sickening to think, but so curious a fact that I must note it down, all the vultures have left this country, a carcass may lie for days untouched, those creatures have gone eastward in search of nobler game; how terrible is war!”

Vultures get a bad rap. At best they are thought of as nature’s garbage men – not a bad label, by the way. At worst they are considered dirty, disease carrying scavengers – not a true representation either. Vultures were once thought to be kin to birds of prey such as hawks and eagles, but recent DNA work has revealed a much closer tie to storks and they are now placed in that family.

Commonly called buzzards, two types of vultures are found in Louisiana. Turkey vultures are the largest with a wingspan of six feet and a long, rounded tail. Black vultures have a wingspan of four and a half feet and a short tail. Adult turkey vultures have a red unfeathered head. A black vulture’s head is gray. With a little practice vultures can be differentiated in flight. Black vultures appear short-winged, short-tailed, and alternately glide and flap with quick, snappy wingbeats. White patches on the wingtips are sometimes visible. Turkey vultures look long-winged and glide with a pronounced dihedral or v-shaped angle to the wings.

Both species eat carrion, and the increasing roadkills resulting from the growing number of vehicles on the nation’s highways are thought to be contributing to a slight increase in vulture populations. Black vultures are more aggressive and are known to kill small animals and even weak livestock in unusual cases. Black vultures depend mostly on sight to locate their food while turkey vultures depend on a remarkable sense of smell. Gas companies have used them to find leaks in pipelines. A strong-smelling chemical is pumped through the pipes, attracting vultures over the leak. Gas company crews just look for the soaring vultures.

Nests are usually on the ground under brush, against a log, or in vacant barns or outbuildings. In this area they are commonly found in duck blinds located over water in lakes or bayous. No actual nest is constructed and two eggs are usually laid. Outside of the nesting season, vultures form communal roosts where many birds gather to spend the night in a small group of trees.

Vultures live at the apex of the ecological pyramid. As such they are often more vulnerable to changes in the ecosystem than other species. If the buzzards disappear in north Louisiana again, it will not likely be due to a battle but rather to the result of poor decisions that impact the environment. Vultures are only the messengers.


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