Vultures are smart and also...jealous?
Two species of vulture call North Florida home, turkey vultures with their bare red heads, and black vultures with their bare black ones. On a recent hour-long road trip up to the Okefenokee Swamp in Folkston, Ga., we saw three groups of vultures happily cleaning up messes on the road. The first roadkill was pretty far gone when we saw it, but it looked like it might have been a feral hog. Further along, another group of vultures was working on a deer carcass. And later on, more vultures were contenting themselves with a small possum.
Can you guess what a group of vultures feeding on a carcass is called? It’s called a “wake,” and when you think about it, all those dark shapes surrounding a dead body, how aptly named! Otherwise, a group of vultures is called a “committee,” or a “kettle” if they are circling in the sky. Despite the messy nature of their life’s work, researchers have found vultures to be highly social animals, with a well-developed sense of community.
Vultures are long-lived and highly social animals, and it is known that black vultures pair for life. At night, vultures often nest communally, on high towers and in tall trees. This sometimes causes problems to airport equipment or local homeowners who dislike their messy droppings. I’ve heard of some cases where vultures take a liking to eating the upholstery on boats. For the most part, vultures are nothing to worry about. As a group, they might look intimidating, but they seek dead prey, not live animals, and never attack people. Unless, of course, we are talking about “Igor.”
Igor – a female – was a retired animal performer from a television show some of my contemporaries might remember, The Addams Family. When Igor was well into her 40s, she was donated to Marine World Africa USA, the theme park in California where I worked as director of education a long time ago. My friend, Mary Rose, was the bird of prey trainer, and Igor loved her. Igor showed her affection to Mary Rose in many ways. She nestled her featherless head in Mary Rose’s cupped hand and urged Mary Rose to pet her. Whenever Mary Rose put her away for the night, Igor did her mating display for her. Mary Rose was Igor’s “mate” and, in Mary Rose’s care, Igor began laying infertile eggs. For her part, Mary Rose also exhibited a strong show of trust for her bird friend, and let Igor pick at her teeth, a preening behavior that few other people have ever experienced, I’m certain.
As much as Igor loved Mary Rose, Igor despised me. Perhaps it was because I often visited Mary Rose at the end of the day, when she put the birds away for the night. Igor, I’m sure, connected me with her daily separation from Mary Rose. Maybe Igor blamed me for taking Mary Rose away. Who knows? All I knew was, Igor hated me.
Whenever Igor saw me, she would practice a displacement behavior of aggression. Because she could not actually attack me since Mary Rose had her tethered, she instead attacked Mary Rose’s arm above her protective glove. That’s how I learned how good a vulture’s sight is, or maybe their sense of smell, but surely their memory. Igor, sitting on Mary Rose’s glove, surrounded by hundreds of tourists, kept a constant vigilant search through the crowd, looking for me. If she spotted me – or smelled me – even 500 yards or more away, in the midst of a mass of people, Igor would start biting Mary Rose.
“Pat, get out of here,” Mary Rose would yell.
I’d slip away out of sight and the biting would end.
One of Igor’s principle responsibilities was to fly from one side of Marine World to the large yardarm above the killer whale show tank, where Mary Rose waited with gloved arm outstretched to receive her. I had to keep myself hidden during these free flights, or Igor would spot me on the ground and head my way to attack me instead of flying to the whale stadium. To Igor, I was as distinctive as a roadkill is to her wild cousins, and she was motivated to find me, no matter how difficult.
As long as vultures are in my world, memories of Mary Rose and Igor live on in my life. I’m sure Mary Rose would love to know that I always think of her when I see a vulture. I’m not sure about Igor, though. Wherever she is now, she undoubtedly still hates me.