Turkey vulture: ghastly, amazing all in one bird

Turkey vulture: ghastly, amazing all in one  bird
John C. Lorson

Turkey vultures bask in the morning light along the Holmes County Trail. This behavior, often called “sunning,” serves more than the simple purpose of warming and drying the bird in the morning. Scientists believe, for vultures in particular, that the ritual helps to rid the bird’s plumage of bacteria and forces the demise of harmful feather lice by heating the dark feathers to temperatures as high as 140-160 F.


Of all the things I’ve seen from the saddle in a lifetime of bicycle rides, only a handful have caused me to grab a double handful of brakes and skid to a stop in amazement. One such moment arrived, compliments of one of the most disrespected and misunderstood birds to call Ohio home: the turkey vulture.

It was a Sunday morning as I remember it. A few buddies and I were taking advantage of some beautiful fall weather to make one of our favorite rides from home in Orrville down to the village of Trail. There we have a long tradition of posing for a photo in front of Troyer’s Trail Bologna next to the front window lineup of light-activated dancing flowers, animals and cartoon characters.

That halfway point always makes for a nice opportunity to wolf down a snack or fill a water bottle. Then it’s off to roll past an architectural wonder we’ve always referred to as “the cabin on the rock” — a sight that is exactly as it sounds. It was just around the corner from the cabin that we all skidded to an almost tire-popping stop.

If you’ve ever seen a turkey vulture close up, you’re not likely to ever forget it. A large and imposing bird with a wing spread that easily reaches 6 feet, the vulture often seems even larger because it will allow you to approach fairly closely before it will give up its space. It’s likely fought hard for its claim on that dead woodchuck, and it’s not going to give it up to the likes of you. That’s the bluff anyhow. Very rarely is a turkey vulture actually struck by a vehicle despite making a living off of meals gathered in the fast lane.

Quite possibly the most striking feature of the large, fearless bird is its red, featherless upper neck and head. If you were looking to create a creepy character to associate with death and decay, you couldn’t do better than this. That bald head, however, has a very simple specialized function: It cleans up easily after poking around inside the carcasses of dead things.

The turkey vulture's specialized adaptations don’t stop with its charming good looks. Because of a propensity for gobbling up things that have already been “worked on a while” by other organisms including all manner of animals, insects and bacteria, the turkey vulture has adapted a community of digestive bacteria in its gut that can take on most anything. The bird also has an incredible sense of smell — so keen in fact that it can pick up the scent of its next free meal from literally a mile away while soaring almost effortlessly on thermal updrafts of wind.

Turkey vultures feed exclusively on carrion and will almost never, unless pressed by starvation, take on a living creature. The bird’s smaller, darker and much more aggressive cousin, the black vulture, has no such qualms about killing for its food. Black vultures can pose serious threats to sheep, goats and even beef farmers as they’ve been known to converge on newborn animals for an easy kill.

The black vulture, while historically a more southern species, has been extending its range northward in the past few decades, possibly as a consequence of climate change. Both species of vultures migrate only as far south in the winter as needed to find nonfrozen carrion on which to feed.

Even with all that background on the turkey vulture, two more fun facts fully set the stage for my big moment.

First, turkey vultures, like the eagles I described in last week’s column, often sun themselves on cool mornings. They stand with wings droopily outspread to catch the sun rays, both to warm themselves and also to disinfect their plumage by essentially “baking away” bacteria. The final fact is that turkey vultures are very social animals and tend to gather, especially in the fall of the year, in flocks of 50 to more than 100 birds (fittingly termed a “wake”) as they prepare for migration.

Both of those behaviors made for one of the most jaw-dropping sights I’ve encountered in nature as we rounded a corner to find at least 80 of the huge black birds lined up “sunning” across the entire length of roof peak, each dormer pitch and every fence post around the loveliest little Cape Cod in the valley. One could only hope the folks within had headed off to church before the “wake” began and would be returning after the birds had dispersed. I figure if I came home to a similar scene, I’d turn right back around for the church.

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 jlorson@alonovus.com.

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