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International Vulture Awareness Day! Have you hugged a vulture lately?

September 7, 2013 was International Vulture Awareness Day!

I love watching Turkey Vultures soaring and playing in the wind, far above our heads.  Every time I'm driving in Halton region, I watch for these awesome birds in the sky with the Niagara Escarpment as their backdrop. We've watched them soar as we have hiked Rattlesnake Point. And every now and then I get a thrill when I see them near my home in Guelph, which is not a common occurrence.

International Vulture Awareness Day is a celebration, but it is born out of a serious problem. 
Sadly, the vulture is terribly misunderstood all over the world, resulting in the very real possibility of extinction for many species.  They face threats such as poisoning and loss of food and habitat. 

Thankfully, organizations around the world are working to raise awareness of vultures in hopes that education turns to appreciation, which will then result in conservation.

Conservation Halton's Mountsberg Raptor Centre kicked off their vulture celebrations on Labour Day Monday with fun activities for kids and a special talk featuring their resident Turkey Vulture, Casey. 

Look at this handsome guy!  Casey strutted across the grass and spread his very impressive wings for us so we could get a good look at him, up close and personal.

The famous vulture pose - wings outstretched. This is actually called the Horaltic Pose and helps the bird dry his wings and warm-up.  It's the vulture version of sunning itself!

As Casey struck a pose or two, we learned a few things about turkey vultures from a Raptor Centre volunteer.

It's true that they eat dead things. (They also pee on themselves to stay cool and keep themselves clean, and their main defense is projectile vomiting.)  And it's true that for most of us that IS pretty gross. But eating dead things is what makes them so important.  Simply put, as nature's clean-up crew they restrict the spread of disease by keeping the environment free of carcasses and waste that could be the root cause of some pretty nasty bacteria.

Vultures have a bad reputation, thanks to mythology and the way they have been portrayed in countless stories and movies over the last century.  When you think about a vulture, what pops into your head? Halloween scenes, dark skies, and dead stuff. Right? I prove my point.

I have to admit, I used to be kind of creeped-out by them.  But through the Raptor Centre's education program and celebration of vultures, I learned that they are extremely important birds that are critical to a functioning ecosystem.

In addition to their important role in nature, they have some amazing other talents.  Did you know they can soar for hours - yes, hours - without having to flap their wings? Turkey Vultures can soar at speeds over 90 kilometres an hour!  The Turkey Vultures I admire soaring over the escarpment are gentle birds who like to play on the thermals.  

Vultures are very intelligent and highly social. But, don't worry if you missed International Vulture Awareness Day.  The birds were probably to busy soaring the skies to notice. Besides, now you know for next year.   But just in case, next time you see a vulture, make sure you give it a nod of appreciation and think about how important - and awesome - these birds really are.

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