Large bird, small boy share odd thing in common

Large bird, small boy share odd thing in common
John C. Lorson

While the smell of decay is an irresistible attractant to turkey vultures, shown here gathering on a dead tree near a commercial composting facility, they aren’t necessarily there to eat. Social animals, they tend to gather in wakes for safety and kinship, roosting together at night and spreading out to forage during the day. The birds migrate in large but well spread-out groups with individuals following the same path in the sky spaced several minutes apart.


When I was a young boy, my parents used to take me along with my siblings on what they’d enthusiastically refer to as “a ride in the country.” The rolling green hills rose and fell to the horizon on every side as our massive Chevy station wagon pulled up dust from the gravel roads like a rolling thundercloud behind us.

I kept my eyes above the far horizon following my father’s advice. It was a trick he’d learned while crossing the Atlantic on a troop transport in WWII. As a perennially carsick kid, it was only a matter of time before those hills and valleys, twists and turns turned to an angry sea that would have me buckled over at the side of the road painfully reminding the rest of the family what we’d had for Sunday supper.

Hoping to increase my focus on the sky rather than staring at the back of a car seat mired in the inevitability of my next pit stop, my dad would remind me that I shared a special kinship with the enormous black birds that circled above the verdant hills.

“You know those buzzards up there?” Dad would say. “They do the same thing you’re doing right now when they’re scared.”

So began my fascination with the turkey vulture — a creature so vulnerable it would vomit when frightened yet so strong and capable it could soar effortlessly above the world for hours on end. I was thoroughly inspired — and subsequently spent several years wishing I was a “buzzard.”

The name my folks used was a common local misnomer. Had the birds been standing right in front of us, their true name would have made perfect sense. The bald head, size and general body form of the turkey vulture leans heavily in favor of the wild turkey. Beyond that the birds have almost nothing in common.

Consumers of carrion (dead meat), the turkey vulture’s bald head is an adaptation that allows it to “go deep” into its meal without making a mess of its hairdo. The wild turkey’s featherless pate is a mating adaptation that allows males to wow the hen crowd each spring with spectacular color displays during mating season.

Turkey vultures have no such need as they take a partner for life in a relationship that can span as much as 30 years. Like turkeys, the turkey vulture nests on the ground, but the monogamous pair raise only one to three young per year, and both parents participate in the incubation and upbringing of the young vultures. In the turkey world, “Tom” checks out immediately after mating and leaves the hen to do all the work of incubating and raising 12-20 poults.

The gift of extended and seemingly effortless flight belongs to the turkey vulture. A 4-pound bird with a 6-foot wingspan, turkey vultures can soar for hours riding “thermals” or columns of warm air that rise from the ground through the atmosphere, all the while using an amazingly keen sense of smell to detect the aroma of decay up to a mile away.

Turkey vultures gather in groups called wakes and tend to roost together for safety and kinship. A reader recently asked why these wakes seem to gravitate toward cemeteries. “Could it be the smell of death that brings them there?” she asked.

While that idea would play well into the common association of vultures with all things morbid, it’s more likely the presence of large, old trees and very few people make cemeteries a great gathering place for the birds. Creatures of habit like most of us, once they find a spot they like, they’ll return to it year after year.

As for my own kinship with the bird, I seem to have mostly outgrown my weak traveling stomach, but I’m not sure whether about the whole “vomiting when frightened” thing. I’d suggest you don’t test me.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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