Large turkey vultures may hide in plain sight

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Our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

It is difficult to believe that you can live in a community where a big bird with a 5 ½- to 6-foot wingspan is considered to be relatively abundant in summer without ever seeing one. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently to a friend who told me he had seen one perched on a fence post near his home. He had never seen one before but knew what it was immediately.

Turkey vultures are indeed large birds. They are considerably larger than an osprey and only slightly smaller than a bald eagle. Vultures are related to the other birds of prey but have so many distinct differences that they are in a suborder of their own. The two most noticeable differences are that vultures do not have big strong curved beaks for tearing carcasses apart and their feet are large but are not tipped with sharp strong talons for catching pretty. They are more like the feet of a chicken.
This means they are not equipped to catch and kill their own food, but they fill a very important duty of cleaning up the wild areas by eating carrion. Their featherless head makes this task easier since they put their whole head into a carcass when feeding. It also makes them rather unpleasantly odoriferous.
Vultures are masters of soaring and spend most of their day soaring high in the sky, looking for a carcass. For generations, people have argued about how they find their food. Do they see the carcasses or do they locate them by odor? Many experiments have been conducted to try to solve this question, but basically they have not proven which sense the birds use.
Most people today believe it is probably a bit of both that makes it possible for them to find carcasses. Since they leave the northern part of their range in winter where snow covers dead animals, it would seem that they must, from great distances, first locate a carcass by sight but perhaps close in, by smell. Anyhow, as soon as one turkey vulture sees a carcass from on high and starts to drop down to it, one by one, vultures do the same thing until there is a large group of them gathered around awaiting the feast.
There are only two species of vultures in the United States. The turkey vulture is the largest of the two. The smaller black vulture is found mostly in the southeastern states. Only rarely is one seen this far west. The nearly extinct California condor is in the same suborder but is only found in California.
The turkey vulture is especially accomplished at soaring. They appear to be able to soar all day without moving their wings. However, they do a little flapping when they first take off until they catch an updraft, and then only minimal movement can continue to ride in circles until they are lost from human sight.
Turkey vultures seem to spend most of their days on the wing. For many years, a small group of turkey vultures used to roost every night in some dead trees on Bear Mountain. Every evening, they would fly over our house on their way home. We delighted in seeing them as they sailed overhead and were sad when the dead trees were cut down. The turkey vultures lost their night roost, and we lost the privilege of seeing them fly over every evening.
Turkey vultures are called buzzards in the southeastern states and normally range as far north as southern Canada. However, they retreat to below the snow line for the winter, extending well into Mexico. They nest in fallen hollow logs, upturned tree roots and such places, usually lay two eggs, though sometimes only one or three, which are white with brown mottling and are incubated for more than 30 days. The nest area is kept clean and does not smell until they start feeding the young. Then the carrion and feces give the nest area a horrendous odor.
It has been a long time since I have seen a turkey vulture here, but they are more common on the plains and in cattle country where there usually are some carcasses to be found. Look for them on the plains and in places like South Park. Look for them in the sky. When flying, they hold their wings at a deeper V than do the hawks and eagles. This is why most birders jokingly call them TVs. For some unknown reason, vultures seem to tilt or tip from side to side every once in awhile in flight. I’ve never read any explanation for it. Perhaps it’s just to take a better look at what might be a carcass. At any rate, they never miss a beat or fall, and it is so characteristic that it makes another field mark to look for.