MJ Wixson: Vultures make for odd patients

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 23, 2022

We have a turkey vulture in the hospital.

While vultures are common and we see them everywhere, they are not common in our rehab program and a little different from our normal patient up close.

Commonly seen while driving, vultures catch updrafts to soar above us on long, broad wings.
Bigger than all other raptors, except eagles and condors, turkey vultures are majestic, if somewhat clumsy, flyers.

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They will be the large soaring bird with their wings slightly elevated into a ‘V’ shape.

From a distance they look black, but are really a dark brown. The head is featherless (better to reach into carcasses with) and red with a pale or white bill. The undersides of the flight feathers are a lighter brown causing the two-toned appearance.

Turkey vultures can be confused with the black vultures we also see in our area. But black vultures have much shorter tails, which end at the toe tips.

Black vultures hold their wings nearly flat, not in a ‘V’ shape while flying. At the wingtip, they have whitish outer primaries that form a white star near the wingtip. The remainder of the wing is jet black.

Red-tailed Hawks can also be confused with vultures at a distance. Red-tailed Hawks have shorter tails and shorter, broader wings that they hold flat as they soar. Red-tails are also usually pale below.

Bald Eagles are the same size, but the feathers on the head instantly rule out a vulture. Eagles also soar very well on flat wings and are easily distinguished from the rocky flight of a vulture.

Vultures are one of the very few birds that can smell. They will fly relatively low to the ground, sniffing for carrion or ride thermals to higher vantage points. They often will soar in small groups and roost in bare trees in large numbers.

They may also be grouped around roadkill or other food.

Turkey vultures have become accustomed to co-habitating with humans. They will be along roads, over dumps, near dumpsters and farm fields. Eating roadkill is often where they will be hit by a car.

Our vulture is in because he is not flying.

He was found in the road. And he is huge. The wingspan of a vulture can be up to six feet.

They can be 32 inches tall and weigh just over five pounds. But for all of his size, we don’t have to worry about getting hurt by this bird of prey. Although they are six feet by almost three feet, they look even bigger because of the long feathers at the “fingers” of the wingtips.

Their tail extends well past their toe tips while in flight. But they do not have the weapons of other raptors.

Normally, with raptors, we take two radiographs to get everything.

With this guy, we had to take six views.

It did not surprise me that the staff already had views up on both digital monitors.

What did surprise me was that I missed a fractured wing on the vulture. To be fair, our vulture came in crawling with mites and I might not have been diligent in my initial exam in my briefness.

But as I looked from one monitor to the next, something was not right.

I asked the staff if there had been any difficulties on the taking of the six-foot wings.

They insisted there had not.

But vulture on monitor one had a fractured left humerous. The dorsal ventral view on the second monitor did not.

Just before I had them retake radiographs, they laughed because they had put the two vultures up side by side.

After not seeing vultures for years at Guardian Animal we saw one last month and now this one. The last one did have a hit-by-car fractured humerous.

This one was shot with a shotgun. Hopefully, he will heal in a few weeks. Luckily, he is somewhat easy to care for.

There are no talons on a turkey vulture. The feet are much more like a chicken than the strong talons of a hawk or owl.

While a hawk may need to drive its talons into the chest of a rabbit, squirrel or other prey, a turkey vulture’s food is not going to run away.

The beak is designed for tearing food, but the food is rotten so the beak is not as strong. Interesting note: the vulture’s method of defense is to vomit the rotten, nasty, three-to-five-day old food. This food is not as bad after they have been in the hospital a while, but everyone gladly left Austin and I to tube feed it the first day.

Austin and I were getting food, bug medicine and some stimulants for the shock and sure enough the vulture vomited. Most was on the floor, but there was some vomit in the throat. I saw it on the floor, but Austin was expecting the normal vulture vomit.

I had Austin going when I reached in the mouth and pulled out a piece of the vomit with my bare hand. It was reasonably fresh bacon. The good Samaritans must have fed it on the way in.

Vultures are interesting in other ways also.

When I was in vet school, I was looking at a blood smear from a vulture.

There was a blood parasite that I had not seen before.

Because I was a dual degree student and studying for my advanced degree in parasitology, I spent some extra time researching this parasite.

I happened to mention to one of my professors that I found a new parasite.

He did electron microscopy and confirmed that he had a new parasite.

Somehow, when he reported the parasite, he failed to mention me and my work, but he did give me a photo of the electron microscope image.

Although we see them as an interesting bird on a long drive, there is a religious sect in India that leaves the bodies of humans in special places for the extra-large vultures to eat.

When the vultures were dying from pain medicine that was given to cows, there were not enough vultures to take care of the human remains. Good scientific work identified the medicine from the cow carcasses and paved the way for changes that brought back the vulture population.

Our vulture will spend three to six weeks here, before it is healed enough to be released.

While it needs to fly, it does not have to have the cutting, power flight of a hunting bird so the prognosis is good.

While this common bird is an uncommon visitor, we do hope that it learns quickly to eat on its own. Being vomited on is quite an effective defense.

MJ Wixsom, DVM MS is a best-selling Amazon author who practices at Guardian Animal Medical Center in Flatwoods, Ky. GuardianAnimal.com 606-928-6566