by Denny Olson

Turkey Vulture – Photo Credit: Dan Casey

Most of our first experiences with Turkey Vultures are spotting them in flight. They are often in groups, a “venue” of birds, not necessarily related to each other, but gathering because the warm thermals of air are optimal there. Their flight is as effortless and beautiful as any bird’s can be. They are large birds, six-foot wingspans, with a shallow V-shaped “dihedral” profile, circling and rising on the air as if they are filled with helium. They tilt side-to-side, adjusting their trajectories – without once flapping their wings. The grace and beauty of their flight is the poster-child for our human envy of a self-propelled relationship with air.

This ability to ride updrafts sometimes finds them 20,000 feet high, which can lead to unfortunate encounters with jet aircraft — usually more unfortunate for the vulture, but sometimes for both. Our Western vultures migrate in those updrafts to the West Coast or Central and South America. Some on the Eastern Seaboard may not migrate at all.

When mating, males do a “follow-flight”, above and directly behind the female, then dives in a U-shape directly at her. At the last second, she banks sideways and drops a few feet, then he swoops back up and they repeat their graceful tango.

Vultures look almost headless at a distance – largely because of those huge wings – and a closer look shows a dark bird with silver gray trailing edges on their underwing feathers (ventral remiges). An even closer look reveals another reason their head looks small. It is featherless. If the light is from an angle behind an observer, and their binoculars are sharp, they can even see the red color of an adult’s head, and the gray head of a juvenile.

When vultures are perched, often in groups, we can get even closer, and vultures reveal a face made for radio. Bare, wrinkled, circles around their eyes, they are reminiscent of a very sickly zombie. But their beauty, such as it is, lies in practicality and function. They eat carrion – dead animals – almost exclusively. Diving into a rotting carcass would render head feathers a toxic mess, since preening is done with a beak, and head feathers would be unreachable.

Their beaks, lighter ivory-colored as adults age and black on juveniles, have huge nostrils. Although few birds have a good olfactory sense (some owls eat skunk – and like it), Turkey Vultures can locate unseen carrion from miles away upwind with their “noses” and large olfactory lobes in their brains. Interestingly, they are often fooled by the ethyl mercaptan smell added to natural gas for safety reasons – which ironically could help workers locate gas leaks on a long pipeline.

Vultures have to eat every 15 – 20 days or so, and they are often early in locating the freshly deceased (but usually later than magpies, ravens, and jays). The degree of rot means little to them – their unsavory work is quite savory to them – because their digestive systems are industrial strength. In fact, their clean-up role can widen their choices of food. In one documented instance, a vulture landed on the nest of a great blue heron, scared the bejesus out of the nestlings until they vomited, and then ate the vomit and left. The pH of gastric juices in a vulture is somewhere around 1.0, which is acidic enough to dissolve iron should they get a taste for it. The old husband’s tale of vultures spreading disease from pooping near the carcass is far from reality. Their generic name “cathartes” translates to “purifier” and their digestive systems do just that. In fact, when they purposely and accurately defecate on their legs in hot weather, it doesn’t just cool them, but it “cleans” and disinfects them as well.

Speaking of beautiful imagery, they also have been known to vomit acidic stomach contents at potential predators (unsubstantiated and un-videoed rumors have claimed that they can projectile vomit up to 10 feet). The prospect of stinging and searing acid is usually enough to repel predators, and frightened vulture nestlings will issue a warning of same by stomping their feet at intruders.

There is a literal vulture “peck-order” when they communally feed on a carcass. Dominant vultures warn others by flushing their bare heads a brighter red, then spread their wings, extend their head, jump and high-kick, open their bill, and finally bite the subordinate if it proves necessary.

All kidding aside, their beauty does lie in their flight, and their role as a first-order member of the clean-up crew – which numbers in the hundreds of thousands of species if we include bacteria. Everything that has ever lived also died (except Elvis), so if you don’t think Turkey Vultures are beautiful, picture yourself in the neck-deep, rotting carrion of a world without our decomposers recycling all that former life — into new life.

Yup. Vultures are beautiful. Gorgeous, even.

Turkey Vulture Range Map