“The Clean-up Crew”

By Tom Dennis

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

Turkey Vultures are common summertime residents to the Blue Water area and although they are not typically thought of as a beautiful creature and seldom heard (more of this later); they are very unique birds that provide a necessary and good service to mankind and to Earth.  I think of them as the “clean-up crew” that does a job no one else wants to do but, they are well equipped to do their fateful task and they do it well.  The saying “will work for food” may seem a little gruesome when it comes to eating decaying flesh but that is the number one skill on their resume.  Let’s take a closer study of this species and learn about its special qualities.

We often think of Turkey Vultures as big birds, which they are however, they are a “medium-sized” vulture.  They are most often seen soaring and they are excellent at conserving energy with this foraging and migrating activity.  They are also known in some regions as the Turkey Buzzard and in the Caribbean as the John Crow or Carrion Crow.  The scientific name is quite descriptive with the genus name Cathartes from a Latinized Greek word meaning “purifier” and the specific epithet aura, a subtle sensory stimulus (such as an aroma).

Turkey Vultures have a black body, a red, featherless head and upper neck, yellow legs that may appear white, and silver-gray flight and tail feathers on the undersides.  The wingspan is up to six feet and they soar with the wings at a slight upward angle, constantly making tipping adjustments. This makes them easy to identify from eagles which soar with the wings almost perfectly flat and steady.  They are distinguished from Black Vultures (common south of Michigan) which have a black head and legs, and silver gray flight feathers on only the wing tips.  Black Vultures also have a short fan-shaped tail as opposed to the long tail of the Turkey Vulture.  Turkey Vultures roost in flocks on dead trees, water towers and similar structures and they nest in caves, cliff edges, crevices or tree cavities where they lay their eggs on bare flat surfaces with little or no nest.  They seldom vocalize and when they do, it isn’t pleasant.  Lacking the typical bird syrinx (human equivalent of the larynx), they can make only hissing or harsh grunting noises. They often migrate in large soaring flocks termed “kettles”, heading south in late-September and October and return to Michigan and southern Canada in early spring.

These birds seldom, if ever, kill their prey, and they feed on a wide variety of carrion preferring those recently dead. They avoid carcasses that have reached putrefaction.  Unlike most birds, they forage by sight, and smell, having a particularly large olfactory lobe of the brain.  Flying low to the ground they can pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan, a gas produced shortly after an animal’s death.  The digestive fluids of these creatures is strong enough to kill natural pathogens and therefore they aren’t affected by, neither do they transmit the diseases that kill their prey.  The featherless head and neck are well designed for a dead flesh eater and they also have forward directed, long toes and a nasal passage without a septum; they are the prototypical nose pickers.  Regurgitated food is also used for self-defense and is effective since it is highly irritating.

Turkey Vultures have a rather unique way of cooling off during hot weather; they defecate on their legs, taking advantage of the cooling effect as water evaporates from the feces.  If you see one with white legs you may want to hold your nose.  They are native throughout the Americas and nearby island nations and have a strong population of about 4.5 million individuals.  These birds are indeed our friends however, as we used to tell our boys, “don’t stand still too long, there’s a Turkey Vulture overhead”!

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, and naturalist.

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