Meet Toulouse, a 38 year old turkey vulture. Note the see-through nostrils. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

Toulouse, pictured above, is a cranky, old, arthritic turkey vulture who hates umbrellas, big wheels, big hats and balloons and likes sunny days and his turn to pick apart a rabbit head.  I love this bird because at the end of the day, the bird knows what he wants.  He’ll let you know it, too.  Respect.

So today’s post is about turkey vultures.  And not just because Toulouse is awesome.  All turkey vultures are pretty cool.  They are one of the few birds that have an excellent sense of smell, which helps them to locate the dead animals that they will rip apart and eat with that lovely sharp beak pictured above.  Check out how large their nostrils are, too.  You can see right through them! Points to any animal that you can see through the middle of their face.   At any rate, most vulture species don’t even have a good sense of smell, so it’s a pretty unique characteristic.

In fact, it has been a pretty useful characteristic too.  How you ask?

If there was a gas leak in your house right now, the way that you would recognize it is by the smell.  However, natural gas has no scent.  The gas companies add the scent so that you will be alerted if there’s a gas leak and you can leave the premises and you know, not die.  The scent they use is from a chemical called ethyl mercaptan, which is a smell decaying animals emit as well. Apparently, several gas workers, from different companies, have said that when there was a gas leak, they would look for the turkey vultures hovering around the pipeline to show them where it was.  Apparently, they still do this to this day, even though they have the assistance of more “sophisticated” tools now.

It’s been helpful for other animals, too.  The black vulture is known to follow turkey vultures to help them find where the food is.  The cheaters.

Cool as they are, turkey vultures can seem pretty gross to some people.  Believe it or not, this handsome bird shown here will regurgitate his food if he gets scared.  In the wild, that food would be putrid animal flesh.  That has been partially digested.  And then thrown up.  Turkey vultures do this to be more light weight and to startle predators.  They might also play dead.  These birds are also known to defecate on their own feet, to cool off, and to use the acids in their waste to kill the bacteria on their feet that they get from walking on dead carcasses.  Yum Yum.

By the way, if you see a turkey vulture that looks like this:

turkey vulture

Toulouse the turkey vulture, with nictitating membrane over his eyes. Image taken at the San Francisco Zoo.

Run.  He is amassing his strength to strike you down with the sheer power of his mind.

A note on this post- the use of ethyl mercaptan by turkey vultures to find food is one that is under debate by scientists.  Here is one study that suggests that the amount of ethyl mercaptan emitted by the small decaying animals might not be enough to reach the turkey vultures that are foraging from high up in the sky.  There does seem to be a general consensus, though, that they are using their sense of smell.

Check here for some more fun facts about turkey vultures.