I am patiently waiting for a chance to see one of the Old World’s great scavengers of the air, such as the Griffon vulture, or perhaps even the mighty Lammergeier. But in the mean time it was the New World vultures of the United States that provided me with my first encounter with these avian angels of death. I discovered that it is a common sight to see the shadows of Turkey Vultures dancing across the great American highways.
The Turkey vulture is a relatively large bird with a wingspan of approximately 70 inches (1.7 meters) and a total length of up to 32 inches (81 cm). It appears black from a distance but when one gets close to them on the ground it can be seen that they are actually dark brown. The small, turkey style, featherless red head that gives the bird its name, completes its sinister apparel.
The Turkey vulture is one of two species of New World vulture in North America, with the other being the Black Vulture. Identification is easiest when the birds are on the ground. The Black vulture has a black/grey head and darker plumage. In the air it is perhaps more challenging to tell the species apart, but I have a simple method. The Black vulture has black undersides to its wings with 6 large white primary feathers, or fingers that give an appearance of white wing tips. I look for the black ‘T’ of the Turkey vulture using the body and tops of the wings that form a ‘T’ shape, with the rest of the underwing being pale. The Turkey vulture also glides with its wings angled slightly upwards giving a ‘V’ shape. This helps keep the bird balanced in flight when riding the rising air currents. So look for the ‘T’ wings in a ‘V’ shape and there you have a Turkey Vulture!
There is very little that is pleasant about vultures. Bare headed devils that are never far from death. But is this raptor really an angel of death, or is it a little unfairly maligned? Turkey vultures feed primarily on carrion. They are also happy to clear up the waste left by human excess. The roadside is a valuable feeding ground for them. With a keen sense of smell, which is unusual in birds and missing from the Black vulture, the Turkey vulture helps clear the land of carcasses and decay. The bird has a unique nostril design, sensitive to decay down to Parts Per Billion (PPB) that allows it to detect a mouse corpse beneath leaf litter, under the forest canopy. They can smell a decay up to eight miles away when they are 1000 feet in the air.
If you’re going to spend your life eating rotten meat then you need to think about personal hygiene. These birds have some habits and adaptations that help keep them in tip-top condition:
- An excellent immune system
- A featherless head which helps it stay clean as it inserts into places that heads should not go.
- A nostril cover plate prevents rotten meat lodging in those super-sensitive nostrils. They also pick their nose with a long hooked toe nail in order to keep it clear of rotten meat.
- A grooming habit that has them spend time cleaning themselves and each other.
- Perhaps my favourite, and the most spectacular, is the habit of sitting with back to the sun, allowing the UV rays to decontaminate those huge wings from any parasites or bacteria of decay.
I’ve encountered Turkey vultures in most areas of the US that I have visited. My first close encounter was in Upstate New York. I had only seen the vultures whirling above my head, until I spotted a small committee of them perched along a wall and fence bordering a reservoir. I sprang out of the car, grabbed my camera and was able to fire off a few shots.
My next significant vulture encounter was in Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Here I found vultures sat in the tree-tops sunning themselves, occasionally dropping away into a low glide, in search of salmon corpses left over from the spawning season, or the remains left over from a Black bear’s fishing trip. This was a wonderful opportunity to get close to these birds during take-off and landing which gave a true sense of the size of these great birds.
A little known fact about Turkey vultures is that they have been known to collide with airplanes. Between the years 1989 and 1992 US Air Force records show Turkey Vulture collisions with aircraft resulted in two human deaths, three airplane crashes, and a loss of more than 21 million dollars. Let’s not forget the poor vulture who was probably the one who was collided with.
This amazing bird with the super-power of smell carries out an essential role in nature. It is unfortunate that the creatures that carry out these grizzly task are often the creatures that we abhor. Turkey vultures are out there cleaning the land, reducing the spread of disease and distributing recycled nutrients. I’m always happy to see them wheeling high in the sky above, waiting for the next opportunity to clear our roadsides of the dead.
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