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Vultures are magnificent in flight, soaring effortlessly high above, wings spread wide, seemingly taut and light as a kite. They have only to make adroit and subtle moves with their wings, hardly flapping them at all to stay aloft on the breezes forever. They wheel about, this way and that, cruising for just the right scent - the whiff of rotting flesh wafting from the land below. Then they spin down for a communal meal with friends. These scavengers are part of Mother Nature’s “Cleanup Crew,” a none-too-proud fraternity scouring the surface of the Earth to clean up such messes before they get out of hand and become pestilent. They are ugly specimens, with disgusting eating habits, but they serve a great purpose in nature’s complex food chain.

It’s a curious juxtaposition, this beautiful, elegant vision in the sky and the ghastly feeding behavior and the placement in the food web but these are the facts. Unlike many animals who only take an occasional carrion meal - raccoons, lions, yellow jackets, crows, dogs, flies, wolves, bears, owls, hyenas, etc. - vultures feed almost exclusively on the dead. They are considered such an integral part of the ecology they are a protected species under a 1918 Federal law. For instance, you can’t just “choot ‘em” and have one stuffed for display in your office or living room.

There are two birds of similar size, shape and mission soaring over St. Tammany: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) range from the tip of South America to Canada and the American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) lives in the southern part of North America to the northern part of South America. They both share the same repulsive diet and traits like having no voice except the occasional grunt or hiss, naked heads and a preference for flying over semi-wooded land (open areas are easier to exit if dinner is suddenly interrupted).

You can tell the two vultures apart on the ground because Cathertes has red on the head, like a Turkey. The Black Vulture’s head is covered with wrinkly, grey skin. Neither will win an avian beauty contest. In flight, the whole back two-thirds of the wings and tail of the Turkey Vulture are light grey in color. The Black Vulture is light grey only on its wing tips.

In America the term Buzzard is sometimes used for these birds. It’s an old European name for certain kinds of raptors, which was transferred across the Atlantic by the Europeans who stuck it on these scavengers.

In spite of having driven past thousands of these birds feasting alongside the highway, I’ve found them to be cagey beasts that don’t like to have their photograph taken. I once tried repeatedly to get some shots of a small group just down the road but they kept a close watch on me and fled up into the trees each time I showed myself to get a good shot. Apparently they were more comfortable around the predicable, speeding automobile than with a stalking photographer lurking about. They should have never worried because there were many good reasons why I wasn’t about to horn in on their dinner.