I Believe in Turkey Vultures
I believe in turkey vultures. These large reviled birds, magnificent in their brown feathers, with red, wrinkled featherless heads and 3-foot wingspans, are symbols of the passage of time to me. I can’t imagine keeping track of time without our seasons, and I can’t imagine keeping track of seasons without noticing the presence, absence or movement of turkey vultures. In the autumn, starting in about mid-November, we watch for them every day and record the last day we see them. We sit on our deck and watch them glide straight south overhead, wings set.
These ungainly birds are the absolute harbingers of spring, usually the first migrants to return. This year I saw my first turkey vulture on February 23. They always return too early before the last cold weather, and I always wonder how they make it until the return of warm weather. They make it, of course, because of their ability to find carrion—road kill, animals that die of disease, or hunger, or by predators.
Part of their bad press is this carrion diet, which makes them symbols of death. Circling turkey vultures are usually riding thermal updrafts and looking for a dead meal on the ground. And, for some people, circling turkey vultures can trigger a feeling of unease—someone or something has died.
They are nature’s undertakers, efficiently disposing of animals hit in the road within a night or two. When our highway crews get to road kill before the vultures, they dump them in an abandoned soccer field near our street. The vultures find these corpses in short order. We take our dog Emma to this soccer field on her walks, and she loves being able to take off and displace several vultures enjoying their feast. In dog fashion, she also loves to roll in this carrion, guided by her hardwired dog brain, disguising herself from her enemies by masking her scent.
A friend of ours, the director of a county park district, was fond of turkey vultures and built a vulture feeding station on the park district grounds. It was a simple platform on four posts and farmers brought their dead hogs, stillborn calves and so forth for the birds. It became a popular attraction if you didn’t get too close. A ranger brought a group to see it; the wind shifted and they got the full blast of the stench. The ranger immediately got sick, and he continued to retch the rest of the day from the real or imagined residual stink.
Worse, a friend of mine, a dean at a community college, was driving to graduation along wooded and winding roads. He came upon a group of turkey vultures in the road devouring road kill. They lifted, and one dumped the contents of its stomach onto his hood. Of course he was dressed in his best, but he had to get out of the car and find some water to dilute the mess, for he knew it was highly caustic and would damage the paint. I think he said he dipped some water out of a ditch in his hubcap. He said it was the worst smell he’d ever smelled, the combination of carrion and turkey vulture digestive juices.
He arrived at graduation disheveled and imagining he reeked of turkey vulture puke; fortunately, his academic gown disguised his appearance but all day he couldn’t get rid of the smell in his nostrils.
Still, I love turkey vultures and consider them among the most wonderful of God’s creatures. Consider that the Wright brothers studied turkey vultures to determine the design for the airplane wing. And they are excellent and devoted parents. The construct huge nests festooned with their manure droppings and regurgitated carrion that missed the mouths of their young. They have strong family ties; even after the young become adults the family stays together.
We see as many as 30 at a time circling over our soccer field. We’ve learned to tell some of them apart by their missing or damaged wing feathers. There has to be a nest nearby, and we have looked for it along the river, but we’ve never found it and this, I think, is another part of their appeal—their ability to exist among us in an urban area with their large, stinking nest undetected.
I love going south in the middle of winter and seeing the skies full of turkey vultures. We were camping at Florida Bay in the Everglades and saw some that had been domesticated by the campers. They were lumbering and shuffling around, flopping awkwardly among the campsites begging for food. A couple of birds were huddled in the arced stream of a running drinking fountain, and a few splashed themselves in the water that had pooled at the base. They were funny to see, and it was interesting to see them at close range, and yet sad and disheartening to see these magnificent birds clowning for junk food.
So, I believe in turkey vultures, truly among the most marvelous of God’s creatures. Life without turkey vultures would be a poor life, indeed. Long may they thrive!