A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kimmy Birrer: Sharing a best birding memory and reminding of the value of vultures in our lives

After an early, relatively unsuccessful morning of driving around searching for Kirtland’s warblers in the jack pines of Northern Michigan, I was more than ready to finally see something after hearing nothing but chickadees calling. I recalled being told of some particular birds nesting in a barn. I found the old building and parked the Jeep on the sandy road. An old moose skull stared at me from above the door, as though warning me not to enter.

Kimmy Birrer (Photo provided)

Kimmy Birrer (Photo provided)

Undeterred, I opened the barn door and slid into the darkness. I walked slowly around the dimly lit room, carefully stepping around old boards and archaic farm equipment – listening for evidence of life. Near the back of the barn I saw movement, and soon a low hiss followed. I pulled out my flashlight to illuminate something rarely seen: two young turkey vultures still covered with fluffy, white down, several weeks away from fledging.

They were terrified. They eyed me and awkwardly stepped up and down. The hissing continued and one raised its wings at me in defense. I sat about 15 feet away from them and took a couple of photos. Not wanting to stress them further, I took my leave. Although I never did find the sought-after Kirtland’s warbler, that day holds one of my best birding memories.

I celebrate vultures. And it turns out that many others celebrate them as well. Since 2009, International Vulture Awareness Day has been held annually on September 6th to raise awareness of vultures around the world. I never could have predicted what that day would bring to me.

I am an avid equestrian and have many friends who know of my birding avocation. While on a trail ride, my friend Cindi saw a vulture that appeared to be injured. She called me. I came out as soon as I could and searched for the vulture in a cow field. An adult took flight from a low-hanging branch near the edge of the field, soared high and then circled. I walked that way and soon found something clumsily moving across the ground. It was a juvenile turkey vulture and incapable of flying.

Adult turkey vultures. (Photo by Kimmy Birrer)

Adult turkey vultures. (Photo by Kimmy Birrer)

I found the landowner to help me catch the poor bird. We cornered him, and after trying to run through the wire fence, I had him wrapped in a towel. He stared at us wide and open-mouthed. In defense, he vomited some foul-smelling stomach contents on me. I forgave him. We placed him in a box and I drove him to Milford, Ohio to RAPTOR, Inc., a rehab center specifically for birds of prey. It turned out he had a deformed wing but was otherwise healthy because his parents had continued to feed him. He never would have been able to fly, so he was euthanized. I am still saddened by this, but such is natural selection. I’m glad that (as far as I know) his deformity was not human-caused and that he did not suffer.

Vultures provide an invaluable service to us. They eat only dead meat, meaning that they do not hunt and kill. Much of their food may be diseased or infected in some way, but their stomach acid is capable of killing bacteria and viruses – such as rabies – that would kill anything else that tried to eat it.

Despite the service they provide us in cleaning up dead and diseased animals, they are very much underappreciated. People do not realize how necessary they are, nor do they find them as beautiful as other birds.

While vultures have always seemed to be such a familiar face to me, their numbers are not secure. International Vulture Awareness Day has sought to rid vultures of that stigma and to encourage people to advocate for their survival. It was founded because many of these scavengers around the world are declining, particularly in Africa and Asia where they may not be able to rebound.

Young turkey vultures. (Photo by Kimmy Birrer)

Young turkey vultures. (Photo by Kimmy Birrer)

This is largely due to eating poisoned carcasses of poached wildlife or drug-infused cattle. Vultures have extremely strong stomachs, but they are not invincible to these human-made substances.

Thankfully, in the United States we have alternative drugs for cattle and most poisonous drugs are banned. We also do not face as desperate a poaching problem as the countries of Africa.

These great birds need all the support they can get. So the next time you see a vulture circling high above or cleaning up a dead animal from the side of the road, give it a thank you. They are providing us all a great service.

Sometimes I don’t think we are worthy of such great animals.

Kimmy Birrer is a senior at Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills. An avid naturalist, bird watcher, photographer and equestrian, she plans on attending college next year and majoring in Environmental Science.

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