Ugly turkey vultures are summer residents in the foothills

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By Sylvia Brockner

One of the strangest big birds you can see in this area is the turkey vulture. They are rather ugly-looking birds when you see them up close as they squabble over a road kill.

Their head is ugly, but it is practical. If it were feathered, it would become matted with body fluids as they rip open carcasses. Their feet are large and strong enough to hold down a carcass as they rip it apart with their big beaks. They do not have sharp talons for killing prey and therefore must eat other predators’ prey or road kill. Even though they are not capable of killing their own food, they are classified as a bird of prey. They have incredible vision and can see a dead animal when circling high in the sky.
They have long, wide wings and are incredibly graceful fliers. I first knew turkey vultures as rather uncommon summer residents in western New York. They summer and nest as far north as a few places in southern Canada, but they cannot winter that far north, just as they cannot stay here for the winter for they cannot see carcasses that are covered with snow.
Then when we became regular visitors at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, I really had a chance to get to know these birds better.
In Pennsylvania, they take advantage of the mountain air currents, often moving south in the fall along the ridges as hawks do. It was there, along the Appalachian Trail, that I saw turkey vultures flying below me. They are truly wind masters, taking advantage of every air current.
They can stay in the air for hours with little more than a flick of their fingers, the wide-spread primary feather tips. They circle constantly, looking for food below but still continuing to drift southward.
They arrive here in early March and are fairly common through the summer months. They leave with the first snowfall since they cannot find food when it is covered with snow. They usually nest on the ground and do not actually build a nest. They use whatever natural material is available as a nest site.
They often nest in rotted-out fallen trees, caves, rocky cliffs and rarely in or on top of a standing tree stump.
Although different authors give widely varying times, the eggs are incubated for 30 to 40 days and the young stay in the area near the hatching site for five to 10 weeks before flying.
They were named turkey vulture because their naked head and dark coloring reminded people of the turkey, but there is another vulture in the United States. The black vulture is all black, even its unfeathered head, with a short tail and a bit of white in the under wing. The turkey vulture is dark brown, not truly black, with both the primary and secondary feathers silver on the under wing. The two birds are not too difficult to tell apart, and the black vulture is more southern. It is seldom seen north of Colorado Springs. If a black vulture is seen north of the Springs, it is considered an important records and should be verified by more than one person.
For many years, there was a small flock of turkey vultures that roosted on Bear Mountain every night. Just before sunset, they would appear from the south, flying over Kinney peak, our house and across the valley to a spur below the top of Bear Mountain. There were several dead bare trees there on which they roosted every night. Several years ago, those trees were cut down and the vultures left, too.
I no longer see them daily and just hope they found another roost somewhere else. I always felt that these birds spent the day along U.S. 285 and over South Park for they came from that direction, and there must be fairly abundant road kill along U.S. 285.
I still see one occasionally flying over South Park on its way there.
Turkey vultures have a sharper dihedral to their wings in flight than hawks do, which will help in picking them out. When soaring, their wings are almost flat.
Enjoy these big ugly birds for we would be in very bad shape without them. They are the garbage men of the world, and thank goodness we have them. They eat dead meat, some of which has reached quite a rotten state, therefore, they don’t smell very nice, but if it weren’t for them, our whole world would smell bad.