For the Birds Radio Program: Movie Review: The Jungle Book (Disney Vultures)

Original Air Date: Oct. 2, 1987

Laura talks about the vultures in the Disney film “The Jungle Book,” and how they compare to real vultures.

Audio missing


Turkey Vultures

(Recording: “We’re Your Friends”)

The most articulate birds in the world are the vultures that befriend Mowgli in Walt Disney’s movie, “The Jungle Book.” These are presumably Old World species, since “The Jungle Book” is set in India, although their vocabularies and vocal ranges are much larger than those of real vultures, whose repertoires are pretty much limited to grunts and hisses. Disney vultures also have a more keenly developed sense of irony than other birds.


Disney vultures may actually be more closely related to snakes–at least to Monty Pythons–than to avian songsters. Their counterparts in reality, Old World vultures and condors, resemble hawks, unlike American vultures which may actually be related to storks or cranes. Oddly enough, cranes and storks are as important in history and folklore as vultures are, and storks also have talking representatives in the world of Disney, which usually sound exactly like Sterling Holloway.

Folklore about vultures is less pleasant than folklore about storks and cranes, even though vultures, which virtually never kill their food, are innocent of any responsibility for the deaths of living animals or plants–something no robin or warbler can say. Americans often call vultures “buzzards,” which is perfectly acceptable according to Webster’s, but if you want to impress an ornithologist, you’d better reserve the word “buzzard” for hawks of open country, also called “buteos.”

The only vulture found in the midwest is the Turkey Vulture, affectionately called the TV by many birders. It looks awkward–to some people downright ugly–when it sits in a tree or picks at a decaying roadside carcass, but in flight it is incomparably graceful and lovely. A Turkey Vulture can soar on upturned wings without flapping for hours, riding thermals and air streams effortlessly as it searches for a promising- looking carcass. It can see extremely well, and also has the unique ability to smell out decaying meat. Most birds have very poorly developed olfactory centers, but an ornithologist proved back in 1964 that Turkey Vultures are adept at smelling out hidden carcasses. This may be why the Turkey Vulture is the only vulture that lives in forested areas, where trees hide dead animals on the forest floor.

Even though we’re within the Turkey Vulture’s breeding range, most people in the Northland see them only on migration. Turkey Vultures rely heavily on updrafts, which our good old Lake Superior fogs obliterate. Even down in tropical Minneapolis vultures aren’t common–they can be found in better numbers further south along the Mississippi River Valley and up in the Boundary Waters area. Fortunately, migrating vultures, often found in flocks, are spectacular enough that a good look at one can sustain many birders for a whole year.

(“That’s What Friends Are For”)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”