Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Turkey Vultures

If you ever watched an old-timey western movie you know that if you see several vultures circling in the air, something or someone has died (it was usually the guy who was winged in the gun fight earlier in the show). Just last week we noticed three or four vultures wheeling above the trees at the south bend of the creek and later discovered the remains of a deer in that area. Vultures are large birds with a wing span of six feet, similar in size to the Bald Eagle. They feed on carrion mostly but also will eat insects, invertebrates and vegetation. They are members of the clean up crew and thank goodness we have them to do that job or we'd be buried in the decaying carcasses of everything. (Think about all the times you have seen them feasting on the remains of some creature smashed lifeless on the highway.) Vultures have an ugly red, featherless head which is perfect for digging around in putrid rotting corpses and a sense of smell that can detect scents in the parts per trillion range. They, like the hawks and eagles, ride the thermals and, when viewed in flight might be difficult to distinguish from the other raptors. Here are some things you can look for if you are not sure: 1. When soaring, the wings of vultures are held in a shallow V position instead of horizontally, like the eagles. 2. They also have a wobble which is apparent when they are circling and soaring. Eagles seem to be much more stable in their flight, moving their heads and eyes more than their wings. 3. The under wings of the Vulture are two-toned when viewed from below; the lighter and darker gray of primary and secondary feathers. 4. Vultures can not carry prey or carrion in their talons; all their food is carried in their crop. Their feet are more like those of the storks, actually, with small webbing and weak talons. Turkey Vultures may not be pretty to look at but they are an integral part of the whole mechanism of ecology. We all have our parts to play and one is not of more importance than the others. They are quite entertaining birds to watch, if you have the time, as they hop about their found food in groups, doing the 'dinner dance' as I call it: wings bent and lifted open to the sides, heads forward, they hop about like kids in ghost costumes on Halloween night. It is probably not a dance for fun but rather an agressive pose, vying for position on the kill, but it is funny to watch.

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