Published On: Thu, Jan 23rd, 2014

BACKYARD BIRDING IN MERIDA, YUCATAN AND BEYOND

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Cherie Pittillo, “nature inspired,”
zoologist, photographer, and author, explores nature everywhere she goes. She’s identified 53 bird species in her Merida, Yucatan backyard view. Her column, published on the 7th and 21st of each month, features anecdotes about birding in Merida, Yucatan and beyond. Contact: all4birdies@gmail.com       All rights reserved, © Cherie Pittillo

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, Cathartes burrovianus, Zopilote Sabanera (Spanish), ka’an pol cho’oom (Mayan)

Red, yellow, and lavender are three colors I didn’t expect to see flying towards me, but when the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture approached, that colorful pattern on its head resembled a carved head on a totem pole.

Facial pattern of Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture reminded me of a carved head on a totem pole

Facial pattern of Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture reminded me of a carved head on a totem pole

Those bright head and neck colors become more intense during feeding with other vultures as a sign of dominance and that bare skin may also change colors during courtship or other defensive behaviors. A featherless head and neck clean easier than those with feathers and that bare skin may help regulate its temperature.

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture has keen sense of smell

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture has keen sense of smell

Another feature on its head are the black smudges under its eyes, which may help reduce glare from the sun just like the use of black grease under football players’ eyes. The two holes in the bill are nostrils, called “nares” in bird jargon. Its cousin, the larger Turkey Vulture also has bigger nares compared with another cousin, the Black Vulture.(The Black Vulture soars above Merida every day.) All have a hooked bill tip to tear off meat. “Vulture” is derived from the word for “tearer.”

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Young Black Vulture

Young Black Vulture

 

Those huge nares are indicators of a great sense of smell. Both the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and Turkey Vulture can locate carrion by sight and smell. A newly decaying carcass emits a chemical, ethyl mercaptan, which both species can detect. Ethyl mercaptan is also added to natural gas to make gas leaks detectable. Since the 1930s, Union Oil Company of California workers noticed how leaks in gas pipelines attracted Turkey Vultures who smelled the mercaptan.

Another shared trait is the black and gray coloration of the underwings in both the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture and the Turkey Vulture. The lesser yellow-head sports a five foot wingspan which is evident in early mornings as it spreads its wings to the morning sun. Apparently it has a lower body temperature during the night so it absorbs solar energy through the wings to raise its body temperature for the daytime.

Gray and black underwings of a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture look like those of the Turkey Vulture

Gray and black underwings of a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture look like those of the Turkey Vulture

The Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture has a distinct flight pattern as it flies low over wetlands, mangroves, second-growth scrub, and wet grasslands and savannas.  Another name is the Savannah Vulture. It also sits on fence posts or other perches low to the ground.

Sometimes the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture sits on fence posts

Sometimes the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture sits on fence posts

Although this species ranges from SE Mexico to N Argentina, I often see it closer to the coast, especially as it glides along roads to search for its “goremet” meals for its roadside dining. It’s also known to clean up the smaller bits left by other vultures, an attribute I call the bone picker.

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture searches highways for its next meal

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture searches highways for its next meal

Studies indicate it supplements its primary diet of freshly killed animals with small living prey such as rodents, fish, amphibians, and insects.

When so many bird species rely on songs and calls to define territories, attract mates, or utter warning calls, the lesser yellow-head has no vocal cords. However, it can hiss and grunt. Snorts and wheezes are more common during breeding season. (No comment on that.)

I think television, cartoons, and movies contrived a vulture culture of doom, death, destruction, and dirtiness. And yes, I know vultures are scavengers that feed on dead meat or what I like to call “carrying on about carrion”.

If this seems disgusting, would it help to know the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture mates for life? Or that both sexes help hatch the 1-4 eggs and care for the young? Or the vultures mentioned in this article are more closely related to storks than to hawks and eagles? What if bedtime stories included that vultures delivered babies? Would that change the mindset of equating vultures as ugly, filthy birds?

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, contributor to a healthy ecosystem

Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, contributor to a healthy ecosystem

Vultures are a vital part of nature’s clean-up committee. Their digestive systems contain bacteria and specialized enzymes that destroy rabies, cholera, and other contagious diseases from carrion and contaminated meat. Without them dead animals could pile up and serve as breeding grounds for diseases. In addition, uric acid is excreted onto its legs to kill bacteria from the carcasses. This acidic coating also helps with evaporative cooling on the legs.

However, if the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture is threatened or startled as it eats, it will regurgitate the meal. Perhaps this action is an attempt to lighten its weight to make it easier to escape a threat.

By the way, I didn’t mention it, but the Yucatan Peninsula is home to four vulture species, the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, the Turkey Vulture, the Black Vulture, and the King Vulture. (I only have one image of the King Vulture from a prior story with the Lesser Road Runner. Here’s the link:

http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2013/12/backyard-birding-in-merida-yucatan-and-beyond-beep-beep-no-just-beepthe-lesser-roadrunner/

Let’s not forget that the vulture is an important contributor to the health of an ecosystem!  Carry on, vulture, carry on.

 

DISCLAIMER: References do not agree on details about this species: A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Sal a Pajarear YUcatan Guia de Aves, Birds and Reserves of the Yucatan Peninsula, A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesser_Yellow-headed_Vulture, http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v7/n2/vulture-design,www.oiseaux-birds.com, http://www.redorbit.com/education/reference_library/animal_kingdom/aves_birds/1112829220/lesser-yellow-headed-vulture-cathartes-burrovianus/, http://www.raptorrehab.org/raptors/turkeyVulture.htm

Mexico Travel Care

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