The clean up crew

Photo by Doug Greenburg Turkey Vultures are one of many animals that provide the critical service of cleaning up dead animals.

There is a general agreement in my house. I cook dinner and my husband cleans up. Recently, I felt like I was doing most of the work, while he had the easy job. A switch in roles one night gave me the opportunity to reflect on the value of clean-up work. It is not always the most glamorous job, but critical. And not just in human dominated spaces, but in the natural world too.

When we think about the food chain, a lot of attention goes to who is at the top. Big predators like eagles, wolves, sharks, and mountain lions have amazing behaviors and physical traits to prey on other animals. They are often the fastest, the strongest, and the most powerful.

But they are not the end of the food chain. What happens when that apex predator leaves waste behind or falls because of injury, disease, or old age? Then the clean-up crew comes in. There are hundreds of members of this crew and they deserve some attention too. These scavengers and decomposers make use of the waste and the dead by consuming it as food. While their job may be unappealing to some, they also have amazing behaviors and physical traits that help them survive.

The Turkey Vulture is an excellent example of a member of the clean-up crew. It is common to see them on the side of the road, spring through fall, picking at roadkill. They soar above a variety of habitats, sniffing out freshly dead animals.

Turkey Vultures are well equipped for the messy business of eating dead animals. Their stomach acid is so strong that it protects them from harmful bacteria, rabies virus, and even anthrax. To cool off, they urinate on their legs and the evaporation of the liquid lowers their body temperature.

Photo by Jeff Tome Black-capped Chickadee scavenging off a deer carcass.

There are hundreds of animals that scavenge. Coyotes, Red Foxes, Black Bears, and opossums are some mammals that scavenge. Gulls, crows, ravens, eagles are scavengers from the bird world. Turtles are an important scavenger in freshwater ecosystems. Even the frequent feeder friend, the Black-capped Chickadee, scavenges at times. At Audubon we’ve spotted it picking bits and pieces off a deer carcass in the winter.

Other critical members of nature’s clean-up crew are decomposers. Decomposers break down dead plant and animal material into even smaller and simpler parts. These smaller parts are the nutrients, which plants absorb to fuel new growth. Fungus and bacteria are the main decomposers, but invertebrates play a role too. These main three are sometimes called the “F.B.I.” of the food chain.

A lot of decomposition goes unseen. For example, most of a fungus is underground. The thread-like structures, called hyphae, stretch and search for dead plants and animals. They secrete enzymes to digest the material they find.

But when the fungus is ready to reproduce, it produces a fruiting body to spread its spores. It is then that we notice it. For example, mushrooms seem to appear out of nowhere on the forest floor or in our lawns. But most of that mushroom was growing underground long before.

Fungus are neither plant nor animal but in a kingdom of their own and the diversity is enormous. Scientists estimate there are millions of species of fungus and 90% of them have not been named or described yet.

Photo by Katie Finch A mushroom, the fruiting body of a fungus, popping up through leaves on the forest floor.

As our natural world thaws and emerges this spring, let’s give credit to the scavengers and decomposers. It is the work of this clean-up crew that makes the food chain a circle, rather than a finite line. They don’t just clear out the dead, but they can recycle what’s dead and make it accessible for new life.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.


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