MIDDLESEX TWP — Artemis sauntered down the branch to get a closer look.
For Artemis — or “Arty,” the Stormy Oaks Nature Conservancy's education turkey vulture — watching the group of new people, the talking and the clapping, was a cause for curiosity.
For the people on the ground, however, it was a cause for celebration. The conservancy had completed its five-year-long effort to build a prerelease aviary enclosure, and on Saturday unveiled its aviary to the public.
“Everyone within our organization is truly appreciative of all who have offered to support our mission,” Melissa McMaster-Brown, daughter of the conservancy's founders, said.
And what better day to cut the ribbon for the new aviary enclosure than International Vulture Awareness Day? To that end, Stormy Oaks utilized Arty, the awareness day and some demonstrations to educate about the importance of vultures.
Acidity of stomach
The conservancy's education director, Alexis Fitzgerald, taught about the acidity inside a turkey vultures' stomach with some assistance from a handmade vulture demonstration and the classic vinegar-and-baking-soda reaction.
A turkey vulture's stomach acid has a pH between zero and 1, Fitzgerald said, which helps them serve their role in the ecosystem: A more acidic stomach acid helps the scavengers digest the bones of dead animals they help rid from the ground while keeping them from getting ill.
In fact, turkey vultures have a number of features to aid them in this goal. In addition to helping digestion and killing foodborne pathogens, she said, the birds also use their stomach acid as a makeshift hand sanitizer by relieving themselves on their legs.
They also don't have feathers on their heads, letting them get neck-deep in carcasses without becoming a breeding ground for illnesses.
It's an important role in the ecosystem, Fitzgerald added, quipping the world would have a much less pleasant odor without scavengers like the turkey vulture.
The aviary also represented the joint goals of the conservancy: While Arty faced the public to help educate about turkey vultures, the other half of the enclosure held American robins, which the conservancy was getting ready for release back to the wild: the major goal of Stormy Oaks after it rehabilitates the birds.
Stormy Oaks' celebration wasn't just a learning experience about vultures; it provided an opportunity for guests to learn more about the conservancy.
“We really wanted to see this place,” Jen Barker, of Hampton Township, who along with her husband, Ken, began a wildlife preservation fund in 2004. “We've only recently become aware of this and wanted to see what they do.”
And the verdict?
“It's a wonderful place,” Ken said.