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A Bird in Hand

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This is really a turkey vulture, not a black vulture like was printed in the magazine This is really a turkey vulture, not a black vulture like was printed in the magazine

The Turkey Vulture

Are you earth friendly?  Is your favorite color green?  Do you recycle your cans, compost your vegetable trimmings, and avoid buying plastics?  If so, in your next life you just might find yourself a  member of the Cathartes Aura Club.  This is an exclusive society of avian recyclers, who believe that anything with fin, fur, or feather – and no pulse – should never go to waste.  And like many human earth-loving zealots, they are opposed to fast food.  In fact, to put it simply, they like slow food.  Very slow food.  Dead slow.  Well dead.  Dead dead!  Cathartes Aura club members prefer nothing else.

Spring has sprung and the warm days are back and nothing proves this more than the return of  cathartes aura to our area, better known to most of us as the Turkey Vulture.  Those big, brownish-black birds that soar just above the tree tops in that characteristic tottering flight are hard to miss.  Ugly up close, beautiful from a distance, the Turkey Vulture is one cool bird.  And animals of all sorts are just dying to meet them.

So why do they come just now?  Why don’t Turkey Vultures spend the winters here?  It is surely not because of a lack of food.  How many dead deer did you count this winter?  Instead, it is those warm summer days.  Vultures need the thermals created by warm rising air to carry on their scavenging patrols.  That is why you rarely see them in the early morning or on cold days.  Instead, they wait until the sun is high and the breeze is warm before starting their rounds, just like an out-of-school-for-the-summer teenager.  Perhaps they really suffer from avian delayed adolescents.    

The Turkey Vulture is a large bird that is hard to miss, but surprisingly difficult for many to positively identify.  People often mistake them for juvenile eagles or large hawks; raptors that they might resemble, but with whom they are not closely related.  Vultures are genetically closest to the storks.  Nonetheless, there are certain field marks you can look for to help you definitively identify this bird and add it to your life list.  

First, look for the dihedral in the wings.  A dihedral is a slight bend noticeable in the spread wings.  Eagles and hawks hold their wings perfectly level.  Turkey vultures have an elegant upward curve where their wrists would be, if they had them.  Even more distinctive is the white, almost translucent appearance of the primary wing feathers.  This distinctive pattern almost gives them the appearance of having arms.  In addition, the large feathers at the tips of the wings are spread out like fingers.   

If you are fortunate enough to see a Turkey Vulture perched on a carcass or in a tree, get as close as you can to observe it.  There are few animal sights as unusual in our area as the bare, red fleshed head of the Turkey Vulture.  Quite hideous actually!  The bird’s skull is apparent under the taut featherless skin.  The beak is huge and framed by two large, bony nostrils.  And these nostrils play an important role in the life of the Turkey Vulture as it is one of the few birds in the world that can detect odors.  I suppose that is a useful feature when your only source of food stinks.  Literally, stinks.  Dead things tend to do so after a day or two in the summer.  Perhaps this is another reason the Turkey Vulture prefers warm weather.

Do me a favor.  Have you seen any Turkey Vultures raising a brood?  It is unsure if they breed in our area, though we have large numbers of them as summer visitors.  But if you believe you might know where a mated pair has a nest (actually, just a piece of bare earth on a rock outcropping), drop me a line.  It would be fun to solve this riddle.

Turkey vultures are harmless.  Unlike their Black Vulture cousins in the Eastern United States, they do not kill animals.  They feed strictly on carrion.  And they play an important role as recyclers in mother nature’s economy.  Though they might not be particularly photogenic, they are scrupulously green –  as in earth-loving, resource-saving, small carbon-footprint green.  And they’ll go the extra mile.  Especially if there is something dead waiting for them.  Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, vulture, turkey vulture

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