Martin Tyner has dedicated his life to wildlife rescue, to nursing great horned owls and falcons and eagles back to health and returning them to the great outdoors. He's helped send so many back into the skies over the western United States that most people in his little corner of Utah hardly even notice any more.

Tyner has been doing this sort of thing, without a penny of government funding, for some four decades. And you know what majestic bird he labels as "God's pure perfection?"

OK. Majestic probably isn't quite right.

So, do you know which gnarly, majesty-challenged, roadkill-chomping, shiver-inducing bag of feathers so awes him?

The vulture.

"They are," says Tyner from his home in Cedar City, Utah, in the southwestern part of the state, "so perfectly designed for what they do."

The vulture is one of many birds Tyner introduces to the public in his educational program Birds of Prey at the Southwest Wildlife Foundation of Utah. Tyner, who relies exclusively on donations for his work, averages somewhere between 100-200 rescues a year. He's talked to thousands and thousands of schoolkids and nature lovers, most of whom are in awe of the eagles and falcons and owls he features in his shows.

When he breaks out his bit on vultures, though, there's a little educating to do.

Vultures are among the best scavengers in the animal kingdomThere are a lot of scavengers out there, including bald eagles, but vultures have evolved to be among the best in the animal kingdom at thriving on dead animals. (Photo: Hans Splinter/flickr)

Separating vulture fact from fiction

First: People are forever amazed that vultures can eat the rotting flesh (and everything else) of dead animals — something filled with toxins secreted by the microbiotic organisms breaking down the carcass — and not get sick. Vultures, in fact, are really good at it.

But lots of animals are. "Lord knows, snakes have a very strong digestive system," Tyner says. "They can eat [an animal] — fur, bone and other matter — and reduce it to nothing but waste." Even the majestic eagle, let's not forget, feeds on carrion.

What makes vultures special, though, is that they do it better than most. Like most scavengers, they prefer fresher meals. But they can handle, and even sometimes flourish, with older, nastier stuff that others won't even touch. A 2014 study published in Nature Communications measured the bacteria present on vultures' beaks and in their guts, concluding that two are not working against each other, but have "a specialized host-microbial alliance."

Another vulture fact that people get wrong: When they're flying around, circling, they're not always looking for something dead. They're smelling for it. Turkey vultures (one of the two main types of vultures in the U.S.) have the largest olfactory system of all birds, according to the Audubon Society. Tyner says they can smell a carcass from 3,000 feet away or more.

The rep is not all wrong

Certainly, vultures come by bits of their reputation honestly. They are, yes, almost exclusively scavengers. Anybody who's ever been driving on a rural stretch of road in the U.S. — or in much of the world — probably has seen a vulture noshing on some roadkill. It's a critical part of the ecosystem, helping to contain diseases associated with dead, decaying animals. The turkey vulture's scientific name, according to the Audubon Society, is Cathartes aura, Latin for a cleansing or purifying breeze.

Vultures will, occasionally, go after something still living — but only if it's easy. They are much like eagles and other birds of prey that way: they go for the fast food of the wild. Whatever's easiest.

And vultures, as everyone knows — no getting around this — are not that pretty. With their bald heads and chicken-like feet, with their habit of standing hunched over animal corpses in a group (it's called a "wake"), with forever circling overhead in that used-car salesman way, sniffing around for their next meal, they're decidedly creepy. (When groups of them are floating on air currents, it's called a "kettle.")

There are other vulture qualities, lesser-known, that would not help their rep any. They've been known to defecate on their own feet and urinate down their own legs, for example.

White-backed vultures scavenging on a carcassWhite-backed vultures scavenge in South Africa (Photo: EcoPrint/Shutterstock)

But even those qualities, Tyner points out, make them unique. Their bald heads are believed by many (though this has been questioned lately) to be perfectly suited to their work. A feathered head, after all, stuck deep into the rotting abdomen of a meal, could get pretty messy.

The circling overhead? Hey, an animal's got to eat, right? And the kettles are impressive; some vultures have been spotted as far as 20,000 feet — some four miles — in the air. According to the Audubon Society, they can float for hours without flapping their wings.

The defecating and urinating thing? The defecating, it is believed, cools off their feet while the urinating helps kill off harmful bacteria.

"The vulture species are tremendously old, genetically," Tyner says. "They've evolved to fill a very specific niche — and they're very good at it."

Vultures will never be featured on the coin of the realm or become a universal symbol of strength and freedom. But if Tyner has anything to say about it — if those decades of teaching finally get through — maybe we'll learn, if not to embrace vultures, at least to appreciate them a little more.

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