Wondrous Wildlife
By Vern and Lori Gieger
Road Kill Café

     One of North America’s largest birds, the turkey vulture, reaches a length of 32 inches with a wingspan of six feet. In spite of their large size, they only weigh about three pounds. Up close the turkey vulture is not an attractive bird by any stretch of the imagination. On the ground they appear rather ungainly; even their takeoffs are quite arduous, and not too refined.
     In flight, however, they are amazingly graceful. They are quite easily identified by their dark color and large size. Having whitish-gray flight feathers contrasting against the black feathers of the underwing, its long tail extends well beyond its legs and feet while in flight; they are sometimes mistaken for eagles especially when seen from a distance. Turkey vultures can soar for hours at  altitudes as high as 20,000 feet. They may travel over 200 miles a day, seldom flapping their wings. Riding the warm, rising air allows them to conserve their energy in flight.  Once gaining altitude they glide quite some time before needing to gain altitude again.
     Although turkey vultures are meat eaters they are not classified as a bird of prey. As a result of DNA analysis and other studies, vultures have now been reclassified and placed in the stork family. Turkey vultures are extremely passive and non-confrontational, and will not feed on live prey; they are scavenging birds feeding on the remains of animals. They do prefer relatively fresh food, generally not more than twenty-four hours old. Studies show that turkey vultures are the only scavenger birds that can’t kill their prey. The feet are rather weak and more closely resemble those of a chicken, rather than a hawk or an eagle. On the other hand they have powerful beaks that can tear through even the toughest cowhide.
     Turkey vultures, like other carrion birds, are protected from disease associated with decaying animals by a very sophisticated immune system. Additional safeguards include a featherless head and face which is easy to keep clean. In addition the turkey vulture will often direct its urine onto its legs because the urine contains strong acids from its digestive system, which kills any bacteria that may be on the bird’s legs as a result from standing in its meal.
     Turkey vultures also have a unique self-defense system. When cornered or threatened, they may regurgitate the contents of their stomach, a repulsive habit that is very effective in frightening away an attacker.
     It is not known whether this is simply an act to thwart an enemy or a way to lighten the bird’s load so that it can fly away faster. Like the adults, young birds in the nest will do the same.
     Turkey vultures, like most other vultures, have very few vocalization capabilities. They only utter hisses and grunts. They may hiss when they feel threatened. Grunts are generally heard from hungry young, and adults in courtship. Turkey vultures breed in the early spring. While both parents care for their young,  very little attempt is made to build an actual nest. Just about any semi-sheltered area will do. The incubation time is little more than four weeks, and in less than three months the fledglings leave the nest, to join the flock.
     Contrary to popular belief, circling vultures do not necessarily indicate the presence of a dead or dying animal. Circling vultures may be gaining altitude, searching for food, or merely playing. Vultures have long been perceived as loathsome birds because of their nauseating feeding habits. While their menu may be less than appetizing, we now know the important role these scavenging birds fulfill by cleaning up dead animals from our forests, fields and even roadsides. Interestingly, the Turkey vulture’s scientific name is Cathartes Aura which is Latin for “cleansing breeze.” Turkey vultures are protected by international migratory Bird treaties, and their numbers remain stable.