2017-09-13 / Columns


by Dan Stiles Wildlife Biologist

Turkey Vultures

Most people call them turkey buzzards, but that’s not exactly right. They are correctly called turkey vultures. They are the huge black birds we all see occasionally, soaring and noticeably wobbling, way up there on warm upward air drafts, looking around as they float by. They’re looking for dead animals and trying to catch a whiff of one, because they have outstanding eyesight and a sniffer that is truly unbelievable. The odor of dead animals buried under fallen leaves is sensed by vultures flying hundreds of feet above in the sky. It’s hard to believe.

I wrote a column on turkey vultures nine years ago. I thought It was one of my better ones, even though I lacked a picture to accompany the column. Now I have nice pictures, so I’ll repeat the best of the past column and add a true tale about how I got the photos.

After the rifle season, I skinned a white-tailed deer that I had hung on a tree limb out back. I turned the hide inside out and spread it over a low shrub to dry. Taking a break from the butchering process, I looked out a window and watched a dozen or more turkey vultures circling overhead. In a few minutes, they were roosting in the branches of a nearby white oak tree just a few yards away, attracted by and studying the fresh deer hide. I had a perfect and unusual chance to watch and photograph them through the window.

I always thought black vultures were turkey vultures, but looking at the photos, some had red on their heads and some were decidedly all black with white wing tips. Some had long tails and some had short ones. Come to find out, there are turkey vultures and there are black vultures, and I had both species looking over the deer hide. After I had taken a dozen pictures, something spooked them, and they flew away.

I never knew there were black vultures around, nor that they often traveled in the company of turkey vultures, but the photos proved otherwise. Black vultures traditionally are creatures of the southern United States and South America, whereas turkey vultures are found all over our country, especially in the breeding season. They both spend the winter in Central and South America.

Black and Turkey vultures are gentle creatures, beautiful at a distance, and ugly as sin up close. They smell bad too, because they are dependent on carrion for their food – long dead carcasses of rabbits, snakes, fish, deer, and road kills of all kinds of domestic and wild animals. They consume some plant material, but they are best known for cleaning up the bones of dead animals.

Turkey vultures have few natural enemies, perhaps because of their unique form of defense. They regurgitate their last meal of partly digested rotten meat, so you never should offer to carry off a sick or injured vulture. Perhaps worse yet, they deliberately defecate on their own legs because it’s thought the strong acids in their waste kills harmful bacteria on their feet. After all, they hold their rotten food with their feet while eating, and their feet would never pass a sanitarian’s inspection. And, their heads are featherless because of their messy feeding habits, but enough said about all this. They are beautiful birds at a distance.

Vultures seem to have a terrible time lifting themselves off the ground, especially after consuming a heavy meal. They get whacked rather frequently by cars and trucks after feeding on a road kill. However, once they do find a wave of rising warm air they can and do soar for hours. Their wingspan is about six feet, but a big one weighs only five or six pounds. A lucky bird may live 20 years or more.

Black and turkey vulture populations are doing fine, perhaps increasing their numbers a bit each year. One thing’s for sure. A dog or cat makes an excellent pet. You can bet a vulture would not.

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magnificent photo captures.

magnificent photo captures. the information interesting and insightful on how they serve as one of nature's clean up crew the other one being opossum . which can seem scary and ugly but also gentle. maybe it is death they understand