They're not the prettiest birds in the sky, and as nature's recyclers, they're sometimes misunderstood and considered revolting.
But if it weren't for vultures, the world would be a pretty unhealthy place.
“Vultures are very important in helping get rid of dead animals,” said Dana Hoisington, a specialist at Prairie State Park, located in Barton County west of Lamar. “If we didn't have vultures, we'd be up to our ears in dead animals.”
The staff at Prairie State Park is offering kids a chance to learn more about nature's pure scavengers.
The park is taking part in International Vulture Awareness Day from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7. Prairie State Park is located in western Barton County, about 40 miles from Carthage near Liberal.
Hoisington said the turkey vulture is the most common vulture in Southwest Missouri, and can frequently be seen soaring overhead in lazy circles as they search for their next meal.
That red, featherless head serves a purpose — it's hard to keep feathers clean when one is always sticking one's head deep into a dead animal.
Hoisington said the turkey vulture's populations are healthy, but other species of vultures are on the decline.
He cited the California Condor, the largest bird in North America. It was on the verge of extinction in the 1980s, with only 22 in existence when they all were captured and a breeding program started to save the species. It's still endangered, but the population has rebounded to over 400 individuals, including over 200 soaring in the wild over California and Arizona.
Hoisington said vultures have powerful stomach acids that allow it to digest meat that would make all other carnivores sick.
“They can eat putrid meat that would gag any other animal,” he said. “In fact, they need the meat to be well along because they don't have the sharp pointed beak and strong feet for tearing prey apart that other birds have. Those strong stomach acids destroy the bacteria in dead animals that can cause diseases so they're taking that bacteria out of the ecosystem.”
Hoisington said Saturday's event is aimed at kids, with art projects and other educational projects related to vultures. He said kids will get the chance to dress in a vulture costume and get their picture taken.
The staff also hopes to entice a vulture or two in the skies over the park's visitor's center with a ripe carcass or two, placed a judicious distance from the center itself, so people can see vultures overhead.
Hoisington said the event will be informal and people can come and go as they please. For more information, people can call the park at 417-843-6711.
For more information about International Vulture Awareness Day on the internet, people can type in http://www.vultureday.org
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