On June 20, we will officially welcome the summer season in the Northern Hemisphere. We will also celebrate the 36th birthday of the animal who has been an Akron Zoo resident longer than any other, Tex the turkey vulture. Some zoo visitors have likely never met Tex since he is an ambassador animal, meaning he participates in education programming for the zoo. However, for anyone who has felt the wind from Tex’s flapping 6-foot wingspan, or observed him regurgitate his recently eaten food during a zoo presentation, a lasting memory is made. And, don’t worry; vultures vomiting is a very normal behavior. Still gross…but normal.
We don’t know that June 20 is Tex’s exact birthday, but based on the timing of what is known about his early life, we can assume he hatched in June of 1985 in the state of Texas. A bulldozer operator discovered baby Tex in the rubble of a barn he had demolished on July 2, 1985. Tex was still a nestling with only downy feathers, and his left wing was damaged during the incident, so he was taken to the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, Texas to be cared for until hopefully he could be returned to his native habitat. However, when Tex’s adult feathers grew in, the flight feathers on his injured left wing did not grow properly, and his flight ability was somewhat limited. In addition, because Tex was so young when he came into human care, combined with being a social species of animal, he became imprinted. A representative from the Heard Sanctuary stated in a report, “The bird tends to run toward people rather than away from them, enjoys picking at the animal keeper’s shoelaces, and will take food from the hand. He exhibits very little fear of man.” Since Tex could not be returned to his native habitat, it was time for him to find a home.
Tex arrived at the Akron Zoo on May 12, 1986 after a 3-day flight from Texas, which cost $75.07. In his early days, a zoo volunteer took a liking to Tex and would spend hours reading to him. I think that’s one reason why he’s so smart. Tex continued his love of shoelace chasing, but if you weren’t one of his preferred people, the shoelace game might also include “investigation” with his beak further up your leg (ouch!).
An imprinted animal may lack a fear of humans, but that does not make them tame by any means. In fact, in some ways imprinted animals are bolder and potentially more dangerous because they don’t fear humans. Tex’s innate social nature led him to select an “inner circle” of people he was cooperative for, and most others were not welcome.
I realize many people would not say that a turkey vulture is their favorite bird. Let’s face it, most would agree the vulture’s appearance poses a challenge to being appreciated, and on top of their looks, vultures have some gross habits. However, everything about a vulture’s appearance and behavior is for good reason. For instance, their baldheads make it much easier to keep clean with their carcass feeding lifestyle (the ooey-gooey innards taste the best!). The big feet of a vulture cannot grasp tightly like a hawk, but instead are perfect for walking on the ground and holding a carcass in place while feeding. Vultures will “pee” down their own legs as a means to not only cool themselves, but also their urates are so acidic that they help to “disinfect” their legs. In addition, not to bring up the vomiting again, but even this action serves an important purpose. Regurgitating the stomach contents lightens the load of the vulture so it can more easily take to the sky when faced with danger. Lastly, eating a dead animal may sound gross, but the feeding habits of vultures help to speed up the decomposition process and lessen the spread of disease. And get this…a turkey vulture can smell a dead animal from over a mile away, and can even pick up the smell only 12 hours after death.
Have I convinced you that turkey vultures are amazing? Not yet? Well, let me tell you a bit more about one very special turkey vulture. Tex is amazing. I have both presented Tex in programming and taken care of him for 20 years. I definitely had to earn my place in his world, and I take his acceptance of me as a great compliment. He is just as likely to let me gently touch his fuzzy neck, as he is to try to bite me when I do so. I think he doesn’t want me to get too comfortable in my place. When he basks in the sunshine, I see the most beautiful purple, green, and blue iridescence in his feathers, and his eyes are the warmest walnut brown color. Despite his size, he makes the daintiest sound when he sneezes. He seems to watch with great interest, and maybe a bit of jealousy, when I’m spending time with Jinx the crow, who is Tex’s next-door neighbor. When I let Tex explore the hallway where he lives, he loves to irritate the territorial pheasant by sitting and preening right in front of him, but Tex is smart enough to know to leave the wily Harris hawk at the end of the hall alone. I love that he finds pure joy in tearing up a phone book. I love that when I gave him a cantaloupe for enrichment, thinking he would shred it to pieces like a beast, he instead delicately ate small pieces of the fruit, thoroughly enjoying his novel sweet treat. I love that he still hazes new staff members. I just love Tex, for all that he is.
The wing that was injured when Tex was nearly buried alive in rubble as a nestling has developed arthritis as he’s aged. He receives a daily medication to help maintain the health of his joints, and receives a weekly electromagnetic therapy to keep inflammation in check. Tex does everything in his power to not let the symptoms of his age slow him down, which I greatly admire. When I think about Tex, I am amazed at the path of his life; that an injured baby turkey vulture from a tiny Texas town somehow ended up in Akron, Ohio. I don’t know how or why fate intervened to bring Tex to the Akron Zoo all those years ago, but I will always be grateful that it allowed my path to cross and entwine with his.
Happy Birthday, Tex!