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Vultures Have Culture, Not as Regal as Eagles

September 24, 1997|LESLEY WRIGHT

Lurch and Fester, the Orange County Zoo's newest residents, don't have the regal manner of the bald eagle, their neighbor across the pathway. They lope around their habitat of sycamore and oak with a noticeable lack of grace.

But the turkey vultures make up for a lack of nobility through sheer force of character.

"They have a lot of expression in their faces," zoo director Forrest de Spain said of the black-feathered birds that arrived two weeks ago. "They are very curious and very smart. They are constantly moving around, and they'll look right at you. . . . The eagle won't give you the time of day."

The 3-year-old birds, referred to as Cathartes aura by science types, are distinctive for the folds of their bald, red heads, their curving gold beaks and hulking shoulders. Their feathers reach up their throats and stop abruptly, forming a kind of turtleneck. They appear small, but they can grow up to 32 pounds and have wing spans of 6 feet.

The vultures are perfectly built for their niche, de Spain said. The lack of feathers on head, legs and feet make it easier for them to clean off the bacteria from carcasses, he said.

Acquiring vultures is no easy feat, and de Spain has worked for years to find two of the protected birds that could not be rehabilitated from injuries. Since they do not compete with other predators for warmer meat, they are not often hurt, he said.

Fester lost part of one wing to a farmer's gunshot, and Lurch's fractured wing may have come about by hitting a power line.

"The public needs to take some time and watch them," he said. "There's a lot more to them than they might think."

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