Friday, February 11, 2011

LOOK FOR: Vultures (They Make Better Valentines than Teddy Bears)

Black vulture Great falls,  Maryland, USA
Vultures at Great Falls by badjoby
I'm willing to bet the vast majority of you have either given or received a teddy bear on Valentine's Day at some point in your life. It's part of what we do. But I am here to speak truth to the power of the Valentine-industrial complex: vultures would make better valentines than bears. (If you value monogamy and shared child-raising, that is.)

If you're looking for a life partner, a bear is not a good role model. Bears spend the summer mating season hooking up -- both males and females may have multiple partners even within the same season. Then the females are on their own to raise their young. Different cubs in the same litter may have different fathers, but it doesn't really matter, because none of those dads will be around to help raise them.

Vultures, on the other hand, mate for life. When it's time to raise young, both parents help incubate the eggs and feed the babies. And they do it with the same partner, over and over again.

Which is the message you'd like to send to your partner this Valentines Day?  
  1. Baby, you're cute, but when you start gaining weight with your first pregnancy I'll go out hunting one day and never come back.
  2. I know you're going to grow old and wrinkly, but I want to grow old and wrinkly with you.
Vulture Chick
Photo credit: whiteoakart
Despite this winningly romantic message, I'm not seeing a big future in vulture stuffed animals, though Disney has tried. Maybe they'd have better luck if they focused on vulture chicks -- they are quite fluffy.

When you're out on a walk to a romantic spot this weekend, you're likely to see vultures circling above in the thermal currents. Impress your date by knowing the difference between our two native vulture species, even when they're high above:
  • Black vultures' wings are mostly black, with lighter feathers just at the tips. They hold them in a flat line, and may flap them quickly.
  • Turkey vultures, on the other hand, have a light stripe across the bottom of their wings and tail. They hold their wings in more of a v-shape, and they flap less and more slowly.

Black vulture (on left) by Jerry Oldnettel
Turkey vulture (on right) by Larry Meade
Up close, black vultures have black heads. Turkey vultures have red heads. Some say it looks like a turkey head; some say the red blends in with the carrion they like to eat.

But when you see them up there, don't just think, there's a bird that spends its entire life eating rotting flesh. Now you can think, there's a bird that spends its entire life eating rotting flesh and raising its young in a monogamous pair bond.

How romantic.