Some animals are just flat-out lazy, while others are a little cowardly – or shall we call it “opportunistic”? And today’s “Hot Off The Trail” installment may not be a case of anthropomorphizing, the error-riddled process of assigning human characteristics to wildlife. Won-ok and I today encountered quite a congregation of turkey vultures and black vultures duking it out over a muddy opossum carrion on the edge of the smaller University Boulevard retention ponds along Sligo Creek.
I’m not sure if we were mesmerized or horrified, but, either way, we couldn’t take our eyes off the scene. We stood there for a good 30 minutes watching the wake contest unfold. (Twitter user @Saket_Badola taught us that a group of vultures feeding is called a “wake.” And we thank @VulturesofDC and Rob of @Mammuthus_ for bringing this to our attention.)
Red-beaked turkey vultures and their black-headed counterparts fought round after round for the prized meal. Neither camp did anything to actually deserve it. Vultures generally don’t kill prey; they just swoop in and eat something after it’s already dead.
The turkey vultures gained the upper hand initially, rebuffing a lone black vulture or a small group of them. Members of each clan sometimes simultaneously tugged the deceased marsupial from each end, yanking away chunks of meat so loudly that it sounded like roots getting ripped from the ground during an invasive species removal project. One fearless black vulture, though, entered the bout some 10 minutes later and turned the tide against the turkey team. Of course we could call him “Mike Tyson,” but that would be too obvious, so we won’t.
As mere amateur naturalists in training, Won-ok and I were at a loss for understanding the dynamics of what we had just witnessed. It turns out that turkey vultures have an exceptional sense of smell – one so highly developed that they may be able to smell gasses rising from a dead carcass from 5 miles away. Black vultures, meanwhile, don’t have those kinds of sniffers – so they watch turkey vultures. When they spot turkey vultures zeroing in on some carrion au jus, black vultures just drop in and try to snatch the meat away. The task is often made all the more simple by the fact that turkey vultures have a bit of Cowardly Lion in them.
If that’s not lazy, I don’t know what is. Unless it’s clever like a fox. Either way, I’m pretty sure I’m anthropomorphizing again.Click here to view more photos of this animal kingdom.