Remembering Costa Rica Part 5

OK, so far I've shown you the numerous pretty things Costa Rica has to offer, so it's time to look at the black sheep in that glamorous family. They may be ugly as hell, but to be honest, vultures interest me. Nature isn't always beautiful, but it is efficient and amazing. As all scavengers, vultures can be and are quite gross. Nonetheless, they are a  key component of a healthy ecosystem. While in Canada I tried to shoot vultures on occasion but without too much enthusiasm. But in Costa Rica I was offered a chance to try shooting a King vulture and a King vulture is simply gorgeous. I would love to get another chance to photograph it, but this time around I had to deal with turkey vultures and black vultures. Both so ugly, only their mothers could love them.

Vultures, to my surprise, turned out to be a very shy bunch. Shooting them takes stealth. I was using a blind built by Bence Mate. It was more of a WWII bunker, to be honest. The blind was a solid concrete structure with a one-way panoramic view window. Inside was dark and cool in a nice contrast to the outside. Just beyond the window the ground was slightly raised. The small ditches where the lures were laid out were thus concealed from view. The birds could not see me from the outside or hear me clearly, but I was shocked when I had to change the camera battery and despite me being very quiet the very few sounds the commotion caused alerted the scavengers and they came to the window to inspect it. This freakishly good hearing stunned me, I mean, their primary food source is dead meat, what do they have to listen for? It took a few minutes of complete stillness (after I took one shot of them) for the paranoid birds to stop trying to see through the glass and go back to squabbling for meat scraps.

Let's take a closer look at the angry uggos. The New World has seven species of vultures, but just like their counterparts from across the ocean, they are essential for the health of the ecosystem. Acidity in their stomachs is so high, these birds are capable of digesting anthrax, cholera, botulinum and whatever else nasty is crawling around in the putrid carrion vultures feed on. Maybe that's why their droppings kill plants and trees often used by these birds, but... they also kill bacteria that clings to their legs after stomping through rotten meat. Yes, vultures soil themselves to disinfect themselves. Gross and weird, I know, but that's how they roll. Black vultures can also be opportunistic hunters if they come upon something small and helpless enough, farmers even report them harassing cattle and newborn calves. They tend to stay in groups and turn violent at feedings. And they look like they have mange.

Interestingly enough, New World vultures lack the vocal organs, so they can only hiss and grunt but not vocalize properly. They also lack something else very important for a scavenger - a keen sense of smell, which is uncommon in birds anyway (Old World vultures lack it). That's why it has to team up with the larger turkey vulture, which possesses especially large olfactory lobes in the brain to process smells, even ones that get obscured by dense vegetation.

The black vultures tend to push the turkey vulture away from the carrion afterwards, no honor among scavengers. For larger carcasses these smaller vultures need the King vulture to open up the hide, their own bills are too weak and the talons are not built or the task. So the vultures of different species are mutually dependent.

Note the characteristic wing basking which, aside from usual purposes of drying the feathers and regulating temperature, helps vultures bake off bacteria. Also, in the image above it is clear that the nostrils are not separated, allowing you to see right through the beak.

The Native peoples of the Americas could see beyond the apparent ugliness of the vultures and recognized the importance of the vultures and that is reflected in their folklore. The Mayans strongly connected vultures to death, the Underworld and believed vultures could travel between the realms of the dead and the living (ability also reflected in some Arapoho legends). The Lenape people believed that when the sun was too close to earth and was burning it harshly, the vulture pushed it further away, burning the skin on its head and neck and singing its feathers. The vulture is often portrayed as a dark and deceitful figure, but it is still respected. Some tribes used the migrational pattern of the Turkey vulture as a point of reference as the birds would often return to their summer feeding grounds on the Vernal Equinox and leave for winter around the Autumnal Equinox.

To sum it all up, yeah, vultures are vile and ugly birds, but they clean up messes no one else can. When you have a job of cleaning up roadkill, you are not going to come out smelling like roses. Hey, it's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it, right? And vultures do it better than anyone else because nature finetuned them for this task. They may offend our esthetic senses and our noses, but that wasn't in their job description anyway. In parts of the world where vulture populations plummeted or were even wiped out things went South very quickly. Nature isn't always pretty, but it is always wise. If you ever see a vulture, try keeping that in mind. Also remember, he might think you're ugly, so you're even.

The vulture blind was not the only one I tested. There was another one in the forest. It was a lot like a traditional tree-house and was meant for shooting birds that dwell higher up in the trees. Unfortunately, that morning it rained, so we only got two birds, but they will, hopefully, serve the purpose of leaving this article on a lighter - and less gross - note.