Don McCullough, a 50-year-old handler at Earth Quest, shows off a turkey vulture at the bird show at the Vulture Festival on Saturday, October 13, 2018 in Athens, Georgia. The bird show is one of the attractions at the Vulture Festival that shows kids how birds interact with landfills. (Photo/Sidhartha C. Wakade, wakade98@gmail.com)

The Athens-Clarke County Recycling Division hosted the fifth annual Vulture Festival on Oct. 13 at the county landfill to celebrate and share information about nature’s undervalued recycler — the vulture. The festival drew in locals using interactive activities and presentations as well as vulture ambassadors from Earth Quest, a nonprofit environmental education organization. 

While ACC Solid Waste Department Recycling Division hosted and facilitated the event, local organizations such as Oconee Rivers Audubon Society, Bear Hollow Zoo, the University of Georgia Botanical Gardens and the UGA Extension Office had booths at the event.

Each organization offered messages about the importance of recycling and composting, while explaining the important roles animals and humans have in the processes.

“One of the things we wanted to show here is the misconception of landfills and composting … We wanted to show the positive things that we do here … symbolically with the vulture,” said Mason Towe, the Program Education Specialist for the ACC Recycling Division.

Despite the event’s title, vultures weren’t the only composting creatures at the festival. 


Don McCullough, a 50-year-old handler at Earth Quest, shows off a hawk during the bird show at the Vulture Festival on Saturday, October 13, 2018 in Athens, Georgia. The Vulture Festival focuses on vultures, but teaches kids about other animals as well. (Photo/Sidhartha C. Wakade, wakade98@gmail.com)

“I think [Bear Hollow Zoo has] some possums and hissing cockroaches and other animals,” Towe said. “They’re also like nature’s recyclers or nature’s clean-up crew.” 

Jen Benoit, the program specialist at Bear Hollow, explained how these creatures fit into the festival.

“We brought some animals that have some common misconceptions about them, kind of like vultures do,” Benoit said.“We brought them out so we can help educate the community and educate kids about their importance in the ecosystem.”

One purpose of the Vulture Festival is to provide a new narrative for the underappreciated creatures, drawing parallels between the less-than-popular reputation of landfills and vultures.

“[Vultures] are always the villain in the Disney movie, but really, they’re providing a vital service. So it’s kind of symbolic and educational in both ways,” Towe said. 

Education seems to be the best way to promote positive opinions of vultures and other recycling creatures. The ACC landfill doubled as an outdoor classroom by offering general recycling information as well as vulture-specific stations lead by volunteers.


Georgia Scott, a 61-year-old high school teacher from Florence, South Carolina, passes edible compost snacks to Gretchen Koch, a four-year-old from Athens, Georgia, at the Vulture Festival on Saturday, October 13, 2018 in Athens, Georgia. The Vulture Festival serves to educate the public about the Athens-Clarke County landfill. (Photo/Sidhartha C. Wakade, wakade98@gmail.com)

Lauren Head, a junior wildlife science major from Milton, came to the event as a volunteer and ambassador for the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia. 

“[Vultures are] really, really important [in] the natural cycle of breaking down food,” Head said.. “They can digest pretty much anything and not get sick from it. When they eat prey …  they also keep diseases from being spread to things that might actually really get sick.” 

The station where Head was volunteering offered interactive lessons about a variety of topics, including how how vultures’ stomach acid breaks down difficult foods. There were also opportunities to learn more about vultures native to Georgia.

“We have two native species of vulture here that are pretty common — black vultures, and turkey vultures,” Head said. “Turkey vultures and black vultures are cool because they have kind of a symbiotic relationship — they help each other out.”

The Earth Questbirds of prey presentation displayed black and turkey vultures, as well as a ferruginous hawk, Eurasian eagle owl, European buzzardperegrine falcon and a giant Andean condor.


The visitors to the Vulture Festival watch an andean condor during the bird show on Saturday, October 13, 2018 in Athens, Georgia. The tours serve as a way to educate visitors about the role the landfill plays in Athens. Many different birds are highlighted during the Vulture Festival. (Photo/Sidhartha C. Wakade, wakade98@gmail.com)

The six-foot wingspan of the condor at the event was hard to ignore, especially as it flapped its giant wings just inches from the faces of the closest spectators.

“We get quite a range of folks coming out and enjoying our event,” Towe said. “Families, people who are interested in birds, just your typical Athens festival crowd. Also, people that are interested in what we’re doing here in Athens in our program.”

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