A Lesson from Buttercup

Before my rehab externship at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, I had no experience with birds of prey. Consequently, I was apprehensive and nervous around them for my first few weeks! The first time I walked into Buttercup’s enclosure (Buttercup is a Black Vulture and one of WCV’s education ambassadors) the extern who was training me said, “Be careful, he usually tries to attack you when you walk out.” He was politely sitting on his perch but when I turned to leave his enclosure after delivering his dinner, he started chasing me. Terrified, I quickly ran out and shut the gate. As I stood there, he came up to me and started pulling my shoelaces through the fence and pecking at my boots. All I could do was burst into laughter! Was this bird trying to play with me?

My relationship with Buttercup changed and developed since that first encounter and he quickly became my favorite education animal at the Wildlife Center. When I would come in to clean his enclosure, he would greet me and tug at my gloves. After giving him fresh water, he’d immediately jump in and bathe in it. When I would walk in to a neighboring enclosure, he’d act jealous and start pacing and putting on a show until I noticed him. Sometimes, he would even put on a courtship display and spread his wings and slowly walk in a circle as if to say, “Look at me!” Buttercup provides staff with constant entertainment and is a favorite of many of the Center’s visitors! Buttercup serves an important role as an education animal because, much like I misunderstood him when I first started my externship, many people do not understand the importance of the vultures around us.

Buttercup is a Black Vulture, one of the two vulture species we have in Virginia (the other is the Turkey Vulture). Though some people think of vultures as a nuisance, they serve an incredibly important role in the environment. Vultures are scavengers and provide us with an important ecosystem service -- they consume thousands of dead animal carcasses! Studies show that places where vulture populations have declined, scary things happen. In India, without the presence of vultures to consume dead animals, dogs consume them instead and consequently, the cases of rabies-infected dogs has rapidly increased. Studies also show that vultures’ corrosive stomach acids enable them to break down many things that we do not want in our environment, including hog cholera bacteria and even anthrax. Further, where vultures are prevalent, they may consume hundreds of pounds of dead animal per square kilometer! Vultures act as a waste disposal system and they play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem.

It is time that we start thinking about the animals around us in a more forgiving and understanding manner. Sometimes people see vultures feasting on carcasses and assume that vultures are gross. I think it would be more repulsive to have thousands of decaying, diseased carcasses in our own backyards! And yes, vultures poop on their own legs to keep themselves cool, but we have to remember that wild animals do what they need to do to survive and thrive in their environment. I am personally glad that vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Act because they are extremely valuable to a healthy world! Buttercup helped me understand vultures and their importance and I hope that he will continue to spread this message to all of the Wildlife Center’s visitors and the public (and hopefully he will receive lots of attention in the process).

--Kelsey R.
WCV Class of 2016