THE BLOG

Why Are Vultures Eating in Restaurants?

04/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

whitebackedvultureAccording to a report at IPS News:

Pakistan's Dharti Development Society, a non-governmental organization. . . plans to establish a vulture restaurant in the mountainous Karonjhar area in Sindh province.

No, not restaurants that serve vulture meat. Nor another version of Trader Vic's, with its werewolves. But a restaurant that serves vultures.

You can stop trying to picture them perched at a table waiting for their fresh-kill. It's open-air, of course: a feeding station. Why cater to -- or cater for -- vultures? Suddenly carcasses aren't good enough for them?

Would that an eccentric heiress of the likes that serves her dog gourmet dinners in a platinum bowl had bequeathed the restaurant to the raptors. But the story is more than just fodder for FARK.

Over the last decade, censuses reveal that numbers are down in seven Asian vulture species. Two, the White-backed and the Long-billed, are endangered. It seems that many of the carcasses they home in on with their keen sense of smell are contaminated.

Stop right there. Anyone who knows anything about vultures is well aware that their systems are swimming in substances which kill the disease-producing bacteria that breed in the carcasses on which they feed. Their ensuing feces is as clean as if it were processed by a sewage plant. If not disposed of by vultures, the carcasses may become hosts to anthrax and botulism which might infect animals desperate enough to eat old, putrid remains. Then how does a body built to neutralize poison become poisoned?

There's poison and then there's poison -- as in naturally occurring versus man-made. Vultures are as vulnerable as any bird to insecticides or pesticides. But, in the case of vultures in Asia, neither of those is the culprit.

In years past, veterinary diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, was used to treat sick or dying farm animals to keep them productive. Turned out if was causing a type of gout that coats vultures' internal organs with a chalky white paste of uric acid.

By 2006 diclofenac was banned, but environmentalists fear that it's still in use. Enforcement is weak and lobbying to restore it to the marketplace (by at least one drug company) is strenuous.

Vultures aren't likely to win a place in the public heart. Their benefits to the environment are little known while their reputation precedes them. You know, circling over the cowboy dying of thirst (which is an urban, or desert, myth. They smell only rotting bodies, not impending death -- as is said of some dogs or cats.)

Also, even though our national symbol is a bald eagle, vultures -- their heads shorn of feathers to expedite thrusting them into entrails -- are a little too bald. But perhaps for just that reason -- rubbing our faces in just how base nature is -- the common American turkey vulture is one of my two favorite creatures, along with carrion rival the hyena.

In recent years, they've moved into metropolitan New York, where I live. Since we're not blanketed with them as the Southeast seems to be at times, each sighting is an event. But that's not because I see them feeding -- or indulging in other charming habits, such as vomiting when threatened or urinating on their own legs. In suburban New York, they've ceded road kill to crows and apparently subsist on animals that expire in the woods, where they dine unseen by humans. What makes spotting them exhilarating is, of course, their mastery of flight. Along with the albatross and frigate bird, they're the world's great fliers.

Rather than get bogged down in composing an ode to the vulture in flight, we'll defer to the Vulture Society:

Vultures launch themselves from their perches only after the morning air has warmed. Then, they circle upward, searching for pockets of rising warm air, or thermals. Once they have secured a thermal, they allow it to carry them upward in rising circles. When they reach the top of the thermal, they dive across the sky at speeds near 60 miles per hour, losing altitude until they reach another thermal. All this is done without the necessity to flap. In fact, the turkey vulture can glide for over 6 hours at a time without flapping a wing!

In other words:

It migrates across the continents with minimal energy output.

It may seem like such an awe-inspiring skill is wasted on the vulture (though it's not as dim as its small head suggests). But were we granted the gift of near-effortless flight, you can be sure that we'd have long since found ways to weaponize the skill and turn ourselves into human predator drones.