With Halloween approaching, let’s pay tribute to a bird that is associated with death and the Dark Side, but actually plays a large role in keeping our environment clean and good-smelling. The Turkey Vulture is a prime disposer of carrion, preferring recently dead animals as an almost-exclusive diet. Think about it – all those dead rats, possums, coyotes, deer, free-range cows, etc., don’t just bury themselves. Imagine the stench if they all just slowly rotted. Fortunately, Turkey Vultures have excellent senses of both smell and sight, and they can find and consume dead animals well before we are aware of them.
Around here, the soaring birds we see most often are Turkey Vultures. They’re bigger than our other common raptors, with longer wings than anything seen over Oakmont except an eagle. (The California Condor, a huge relative of the Turkey Vulture and the largest bird in North America, doesn’t make it this far north, sadly).
Seen from below, Turkey Vultures are two-tone – the neck, shoulders, and forewings look black, while the trailing edge of the wings and tip of the tail are very pale grey. As they soar, the flight feathers at the ends of their long wings separate slightly to look like fingers. (This helps reduce drag on the wings, minimizing the need to flap.) When you’re close enough, their red, featherless heads are obvious. And hence their name – people saw a resemblance to the bald red heads of Wild Turkeys. Bald heads, not always red, distinguish the Vulture clan from other raptors. Without head feathers to trap blood and guts, they can eat their way far into a rotting corpse and remain untainted. They also bathe frequently.
Vultures are in our skies every day, earlier if it’s sunny, later if not, circling leisurely with wings held in a shallow V shape as they test the air for the scent of death. Watch one long enough and you’ll see that the V is tippy – unlike the smooth wheeling of a hawk or eagle, Vultures wobble slightly as they soar.
At night, Vultures roost in dead trees to sleep, often in flocks, and they do look ghoulish outlined in the moonlight. But in the morning they become sun-worshippers, sitting with wings outstretched out to soak up the rays and shake off the cold. Then it’s up and away for another day of cleaning up the corpses.
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Turkey Vulture Perched (Photos courtesy of Tom Grey)
The Two-Tone Look, from Below