The Turkey Vulture

Oct 18, 2013

October 18 is the Full Hunter's Moon, and heading south now are hunters of a different sort: turkey vultures, scavengers that feed on carrion.

Credit Flikr/Creative Commons, K Schneider

Unlike other birds, this species has a uniquely developed sense of smell that guides them to their next meal. Weak fliers, turkey vultures are skilled at hitching rides on air currents. Rarely flapping, they hold their wings in a V angle and wobble a bit while gliding. Because of their large size, they're often misidentified as eagles, but eagles power along, strong and steady in flight, never tipsy.

Schoolchildren at a hawkwatch learn to recognize the characteristic flight and yell "T-V!" with enthusiasm. Bad jokes about TV dinners sometimes follow.*

Admittedly, there are some off-putting turkey vulture behaviors: they feed mostly on dead animals; they vomit when threatened as a way to repel a predator; they have a blood-red head, featherless to avoid snagging putrid matter while feeding; and they urinate on their legs both to kill bacteria and to cool off.

On the more appealing side: our world would be a much smellier place without these volunteer sanitation engineers. The spread of highways and resulting roadkill, as well as expanding garbage dumps, lured turkey vultures north some 40 years ago as a breeding species increasingly common in New Hampshire.

Among the first spring migrants, they return in March and start heading south to warmer states in late September. In the non-breeding season, they form communal roosts—some impressively large.

Overheard on a field trip that came close to a vulture roost, a woman with true wonder in her voice said, "That's the kind of ugly that only a mother can love!" 

*A turkey vulture approaches the airline check-in carrying a dead crow under one wing and a dead skunk under the other.  The airlines employee says, "I'm sorry, sir or madam, but you are allowed just one carry-on.