Bird Watcher's General Store

Turkey Vultures - 04/04/03


Dear Bird Folks:

I was having lunch at my friend Dotty's house last week, when three Turkey Vultures landed on her deck. (Enclosed are some photos, which are not the best.) I read your column every week and would like to know if Turkey Vultures are common around here and why were they on my friends deck?

-Marcia, So. Yarmouth

A Few Things Marcia,

First, glad you read our column every week. Well, almost every week. It appears that you may have missed a few weeks, especially the week last year when I wrote about Turkey Vultures. Perhaps you were spending too much time at Dotty's that week and didn't have time to read the paper. That's okay, I don't mind writing about vultures again and I doubt if anybody else will mind either. Suddenly having a good short term memory is no longer in style.

I did get your pictures and you are right, they aren't the best. But don't worry about the pictures, vultures usually don't look good unless they have spent a lot of time in makeup. In the air, vultures are stately and graceful, while up close they define the word ugly. Their heads are featherless, exposing bright red skin, which makes them look like a bald guy with wicked high blood pressure. The Turkey Vulture takes it's name from real turkeys, which also have nasty looking naked heads.

It's hard to know exactly what would attract vultures to your friend's yard. Vultures are carrion eaters, they eat mostly dead things, like roadkill. The food that Dotty was serving didn't happen to have tire tracks running through it by any chance, did it? Eating road kill can be rather messy. (Like I have to tell you.) Feeding on dead things appears to be the reason why vultures have those bald heads. There are no face feathers to become matted down while they eat the rotten food. Other non-bald faced birds such as gulls and crows eat dead things too, but they mostly pick at food with their longer bills. Turkey Vultures are less delicate and will dive face first into a dead animal, kind of like Rosie O'Donnell in a pie eating contest.

Vultures have other weird behaviors that are gross by any standard. Because they are such large birds they are slow at taking off. Startled birds will often puke out any digested food to lighten the load for a quicker take off. To kill parasites or perhaps to aid in cooling, vultures also have the habit of (you might want to skip reading this one) urinate on their own legs (told ya to skip it). It is this combination of lovely habits that keeps adult Turkey Vultures from having any natural enemies. Nobody eats these guys.

I'm not sure if this is a good sign or not, but in recent years Turkey Vultures are becoming more and more common on Cape Cod. Any of you who have traveled know that vultures are a fairly common site in the south and now they are starting to become common around here too. One reason for their expansion north is thought to be the increased traffic on rural roads creating a constant supply of road kills. It figures, only vultures would enjoy increased traffic.

Without knowing more about the circumstances it is hard for me to guess why your friendís yard has been attracting vultures or how long the birds will stay around. But if they do stick around, Dotty had better get used to her new pals. With no natural predators Turkey Vultures have a life expectancy of almost twenty years. I wouldn't worry too much about it though, vultures eat carrion, so pets, children and other living creatures are totally safe. Only dead things need to be concerned. However, to be on the safe side, tell Dotty to make sure she looks perky anytime she leaves the house.

Artwork by Catherine Clark




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