You might think that a bird whose primary means of defense is to vomit on its enemies wouldn’t rate too high on the animal intelligence scale.  On the other hand, there’s not really anything to do to come back to that.  So maybe it’s actually a very smart move.  And, speaking from unfortunate experience, when a turkey vulture throws up on you, there really is nothing to do but run away.  It’s pretty horrible.

This bird will vomit rotting meat on you if it feels threatened.

All in all, vultures have a kind of unsavory reputation.  The ominous feeling associated with vultures circling in the sky is not surprising, given that this behavior indicates that something has either just died or is nearing its last breath.  Their featherless heads and powerful, hooked beaks give vultures an appearance many consider grotesque.  Their tendency to assume a hunchbacked posture and to hold their wings out like a black cape make them look right at home in the setting of an old horror movie.   They gather in loud, raucous groups to feed on particularly choice carcasses.

In fact, it is precisely this last behavior that makes intelligence such a vital adaptation for vultures.  Vultures are highly social animals, and as is the case with many animals that live in groups, a high level of intelligence gives them the advantage of being able to analyze complex social situations.  It’s very difficult to measure animal intelligence, because it’s difficult to assign objective values to different kinds of skills.  Studies have shown that chimps outperform humans on tests designed to gauge short-term memory, and rats can learn the correct path through a complex maze in an incredibly short period of time.  As humans, we are naturally inclined to favor human-like intelligence—namely, a skill for problem-solving—when observing animal behavior.  This is exactly the kind of intelligence that vultures possess to an amazing degree.  When living with a large group of birds with beaks specially adapted for the purpose of tearing flesh, the ability to analyze social dynamics and solve social problems provides a distinct advantage.  Intelligence confers the ability to form mutually beneficial alliances and to resolve conflicts without sustaining serious injury.

Last summer, a young human-imprinted turkey vulture was brought to TreeHouse.  “Imprinting” refers to the process by which young birds establish their social identity.  A bird of the age at which visual focus develops forms a social fix on whoever is caring for it.  In normal circumstances in the wild, this will be the bird’s parents, so it learns to identify itself as a bird of the same kind as its parents.  But when a bird at this age is raised by humans without the help of a foster parent, the bird “imprints” on humans.  Unfortunately, as we were soon to experience with our human imprint turkey vulture, just because a bird thinks he is human does not mean that he understands that humans don’t usually play by attacking each other’s legs.

In the next few posts, I will be telling you more about this vulture, the problems he caused for us, and the incredible solution we’ve finally found.