The True Value of Turkey Vultures

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In my experience teaching students about nature and the importance of wildlife conservation, it’s pretty easy for a person to wrap his/her head around why turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are so important to our planet. Vultures eat dead animals. That sounds gross, but it helps to stop the spread of disease as well as control feral animal populations. Turkey vultures perform a huge service to us, but just how much is it actually worth? We did some math, and we think that you’ll find the answer to be quite remarkable.

So, what’s the value of the turkey vulture population in the United State? How about the global population? This is actually a pretty easy question to answer after we obtain two key pieces of information:

#1 The number of turkey vultures alive today.
#2 The dollar amount each vulture saves the government from picking up roadkill.

The formula is pretty simple: Number of Vultures X Single Vulture Value = Total Value

NOTE: Calculating the Total Value in this way assumes there will be no significant changes in the total number of turkey vultures alive at one time.

It’s estimated that, on average, vultures consume enough carrion in their lifetimes to save their local human governments $11,000 each (i). That number is impressive on its own, but let’s push things a bit further. Turkey vultures have an estimated global population of approximately 18,000,000(ii). That’s a lot of birds, and just over 5,000,000 of them (28%) spend their time in the United States (ii). So lets plug those numbers in and see what we get:

5,040,000 vultures X $11,000/vulture = $55,440,000,000

That’s right. The services that turkey vultures perform in the United States could be valued at over $55 billion. That’s about fourteen times the worth of the highest valued professional sports team in the US; the Dallas Cowboys at $4.0 billion (iii). Your next question might be, “What about the value of turkey vultures on a global scale?” I’m glad you asked. Lets plug some new numbers into our equation:

18,000,000 vultures X $11,000/vulture = $198,000,000,000

Add it all up, and the global value of turkey vultures comes in at just south of $200 billion. To put things into perspective, that figure represents just under half of the total value of the Microsoft Corporation (iv). If your mind hasn’t been blown at this point, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Before we wrap this up, it’s important to note that these numbers cover only the dollar amounts saved from our governments having to pick up animal carcasses. The money needed for medical supplies and procedures that would be needed without the help of turkey vultures isn’t included. If we were to include how much vultures are saving us on controlling feral animal populations and medical supplies needed to combat diseases that vultures help to prevent from spreading, then their value becomes unfathomable. While their ecological status is currently listed as “least concerned” just imagine how different our lives would be if turkey vulture populations started to drop-off. In the United States a $55 billion dollar industry is nothing to scoff at, and considering that the vultures ask for nothing in return (besides toxin-free food) we need to keep them happy. Please help to keep our vultures healthy, and help us to Keep Them Flying.

Ian Martin, Education Coordinator, 2016

(ii) Cornell Lab of Ornithology
(iii) Forbes: Dallas Cowboys
(iv) Forbes: Microsoft Corporation

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