The Misunderstood King of the Skies.
When next you are outside on a clear day, look up. No, not at that helicopter. This is something even more important. If you see big birds, circling high in the sky, chances are that they are vultures. In Trinidad our three species of vultures, the rare King (Sarcoramphus papa), the Turkey (Cathartes aura) and the more common Black Vulture, locally called corbeau (Coragyps atratus), have a really bad reputation.When talking about bad luck, our colourful dialect has some pretty unique expressions: “Aye boy, like corbeau pee on yuh?” or “You have corbeau luck or wha?” - the former loosely referring to an individual who has had more than his/her fair share of bad luck and the latter indicating that everything is going wrong. To be mentioned in the same sentence with a corbeau really attests to you being at the bottom of a garbage heap. These birds are usually dismissed as dirty scavengers and are associated with thoughts of death, disease and general disgust, primarily due to their habit of feeding on dead flesh.
This hasn't always been the case. Vultures were revered in ancient societies and are woven into tales around the world. In ancient Egypt for example, the bird was an emblem of Isis, who once took this form, and was also sacred to Mat, the goddess of maternity. The Griffin Vulture was a royal emblem on the standards of Assyrian and Persian armies. In the Middle East, there was a vulture deity known as Nasr who was also sometimes called an "Eagle God." In West Africa the vulture Fene-Ma-So is the Bird of the Sky, the King of the Birds. Vulture Gods and their associated stories are also found in Native American traditions from South and North America. Hindu mythology refers to the Vulture God, Jatayu. What did these cultures see in the vulture that we don't?
Despite our feeling of revulsion, let me make a case that these birds are the misunderstood Kings of the Skies. “Nah!” you say? Well picture this.
Imagine if you will our beloved island as a body, with organs and systems working together to ensure the body is functioning. Our lungs could be our forests and Port of Spain can either be the brain or the lower intestine, depending on your perspective. Roads and tracks are veins and arteries. I guess that would make traffic jams clogged arteries that put us at risk of a heart attack. Let’s say people are our blood cells buzzing around, giving life and vitality to the different places. Feel free to take the metaphor as far as you want.
Anyhow, coming back to our vultures, they are also a part of this body and are critical to its effective functioning. Think of them as the liver. Our lovely liver does many useful things to keep us alive. This amazing organ is a detoxifier and purifier, removing poisonous substances from the air we breathe and the crap we ingest both unintentionally, such as pesticides on food, and intentionally, such as wine, drugs (over the counter and illegal) or the Trinbagonian favourite, good ole’ puncheon rum. Our liver allows us to enjoy our many bad habits without ill effects (but only to a point). It also helps in the constant fight against bacteria and other nasties.
Vultures, like our livers, are nature’s recyclers for potentially harmful waste. These important scavengers clean up biodegradable waste, especially carcasses. They’re an eco-friendly avian cleanup crew that is always on lunch break. Without them, carcasses are left to slowly decompose. These birds have amazing digestive systems with a pH of 1-2 (really acidic!) where many dangerous bacteria and other harmful organisms meet their doom. Without vultures to keep these bad boys of the microscopic world in check, these microbes can wreak havoc on the health of humans and our environment.
You may be thinking, “Let the carcasses rot. Who needs them?” Quite frankly, we do. Regions of India present us with a taste of life without these avian wonders. Between ten and twenty million cattle die naturally each year in India and reports indicate that the carcasses are now being eaten by dogs and rats instead of vultures. The replacement of these birds by dogs and rats as scavengers comes at a heavy price. Both rats and dogs are very effective reservoirs for human disease. Reports of rabies, a disease dangerous for humans but which appears to have no effect on vultures, have surfaced in areas where there are dogs scavenging on carcasses and vultures have declined. Rising cases of human anthrax are attributed to people handling infected carcasses that would formerly have been eaten by vultures, or consuming poorly cooked meat of infected livestock. This is believed to be linked to the disastrous decline of vultures. Unlike vultures, dogs’ digestive tracts do not destroy these harmful organisms and instead may contribute to spreading these harmful diseases. It’s not just us that can suffer because of the absence of vultures. Wildlife and livestock could also be at risk from dog and rat-borne pathogens including canine distemper, canine parvovirus, and Leptospira spp.
Do I have you convinced? If not, here’s another reason vultures are great. They can be used as bio-indicators to determine the health of our environment and by extension, our health. Vultures have a relatively long life span and what biologists call a ‘high tropic level’. To oversimplify dramatically, this means that in the list of who eats who (a food chain), they are near the end. Any unhealthy chemicals and various pollutants can concentrate in the corbeau. If we are paying attention, we’ll see these birds displaying signs of illness that can tell us all is not well. Healthy vultures reflect healthy people and a healthy environment.
In recent years there has been a catastrophic decline in vulture populations worldwide. Presently, 14 of 23 (61%) of vulture species worldwide are threatened with extinction, with the most rapid declines occurring in Asia and Africa. In Asia for instance, Gyps vultures have declined by over 95%. Many factors contribute to this decline, including habitat loss, persecution and poisoning. Consequences of this decline, as illustrated in the India example, are worrying.
I could go on about how amazing and interesting vultures are, from their digestive tracts to their incredible soaring ability (they use upward air movement to soar with almost no effort over long distances) to their incredible eyesight. But for now, I’ll end by saying that we are extremely fortunate to have a visible population of Trini vultures working away to ensure we’re healthy and safe.
So perhaps we do have something to learn from those ancient cultures. Take care of your liver, and take care of our vultures. And the next time someone says you have corbeau luck, tell them that’s a good thing.
Thank you to my fellow corbeau researchers, Dr. Driscoll and Dr. Lezama who proved without a doubt that corbeau luck can bring you first prize.
Vultures and other avian scavengers play a very important ecological role in clearing carcasses.
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