Feature above is a Turkey vulture at the Coke building in Barrie Ontario by Jennifer Howard
By Elizabeth Trickey
This week, on March 15th, we are celebrating Buzzards Day! I know…. right now you are envisioning huge, scary-looking birds circling over head, just waiting for some poor animal to take it’s last breath before moving in for a delicious, dead meal! Sure, that sounds creepy, but it is a cost-effective way for communities to get rid of critter carcasses! You see, we do need those birds, regardless of how unappetizing their job seems.
Perhaps, if we learned more about these animals, we would have a greater appreciation of them. In Ontario, we have only one buzzard species – the turkey vulture! I am sure most people have seen them, sitting in trees with many of their friends or soaring effortlessly on wind currents. So let’s look at what they actual look like and how to tell them apart from similar birds such as eagles and hawks.
A turkey vulture is a large bird with rounded wings, a tail that fans out, a dark feathered body, and a white, hooked beak at the front of a red, bald head. Up close, it looks rather bizarre since its brown feathers are thick and they stop abruptly, partway up its neck. So the vulture’s featherless, red head looks like it was attached to the wrong body! It stands 2½ feet tall with a huge wingspan of 6 feet. The lower edges of its wings are light brown with the tips of the wing feathers spread out like long fingers. Despite a vulture’s seemingly large size, it only weighs 2-4 pounds! Its light weight helps it stay aloft as it rides the air currents. It is difficult to tell a male from a female, but the female is usually larger.
When a vulture is soaring, its wings are held high, looking like a “V”. This is called a dihedral shape, which is an upward angle that helps the bird to maintain stability when it circles over its target. From a distance this is a good way to tell a vulture from a hawk or an eagle. As well, vultures don’t tend to look as graceful in the air because instead of flapping their wings, they usually just ride air currents, which can be turbulent, so they appear wobbly in flight.
As science develops better technology for studying animals, and more information is learned, vultures have recently been re-classified. About 25 years ago, DNA analysis along with other scientific studies on physiology, anatomy and behavior, have shown vultures to be more in line with the stork family rather than raptors. This is partly because raptors hunt prey whereas vultures tend to eat what is already dead. Nevertheless, it is common to still hear vultures referred to as raptors.
Turkey vultures breed for several months, beginning in March, so this is the month to look out for these amorous scavengers! Evidently the sight is something to behold. Courtship involves several vultures gathering in a circle, hopping around its perimeter before taking flight to perform aerial acrobatics in order to impress a prospective partner! These birds mate for life, although if one of them dies, the surviving spouse will often look for another partner.
There is little, if any, preparation in getting ready to have a family since vultures do not make nests. Instead, they lay their eggs in a number of possible areas such as rock crevices, hollows in trees, caves, burrows – anywhere they might find protection from the elements as well as predators. Momma vulture usually lays 2 purple-spotted, cream-coloured eggs which both parents take turns sitting on. After 30-40 days, the little chicks hatch and are amazingly cute! Really! All cream-coloured fluff with a pinkish-black head.
Besides being totally adorable, the newly hatched babies are blind and helpless. Both parents take responsibility for caring for the chicks, which will stay at the nesting site for about 3 months. Momma and Papa feed the little ones by regurgitating food for them to eat. At around 9-10 weeks old, the chicks learn to fly and are soon off on their own.
Pictures of a turkey vulture nest, their chicks and juveniles:
Turkey vultures are social animals that tend to live in large groups. They are often seen roosting together in dead trees or on man-made structures like towers, in open areas, and alongside roads. Their diet is carrion (dead animals), and they prefer herbivores to omnivores that are freshly dead. Vultures, unlike other birds, have a very keen sense of smell, which they use to sniff out the newly deceased by the sulphurous gasses that carcasses produce as they decay. These scavengers are able to smell these gasses for up to a mile away. Turkey vultures are the clean-up crew on our highways, in our forests, on our hiking trails and campgrounds. And they aren’t terribly picky, either – mammals, reptiles, birds, fish, amphibians, and invertebrates. What would we do without them?
How are these amazing creatures able to chow down on rotting carrion that would sicken, if not kill, other animals? Especially since they often start eating a dead animal through its softest parts, like its back end? Are you still with me? Yeah, pretty gross, but more than that, it’s pretty incredible. Again, nature is demonstrating that there is an important role for every living thing on Earth. Vultures have an immune system that allows them to tolerate bacteria, even anthrax, cholera, botulism, and rabies. Wow, I certainly have a new respect for turkey vultures, and sure do appreciate what they do for humanity.
In mentioning about the feeding habits of turkey vultures, it brings me to 2 other interesting morsels of info. One is the reason why these animals have featherless heads. It’s to keep them clean after sticking their heads inside the rotting carcasses. I’m chuckling as I write this. An animal that eats the butt out of another dead animal is concerned about a clean head? Really? I guess so! And these vultures have a talon that is sized perfectly for retrieving bits of food that get stuck in their nostrils. So they are also nose-pickers! How can you not love these critters!
The other delectable tidbit of info is the vulture’s prime defense mechanism. Barfing on predators! Oh yes, this bird is one-of-a-kind! But it makes perfect sense. The vulture can handle all the bacteria and diseases that other animals can’t since their stomach acid is extremely corrosive. So if another animal is bugging the vulture, it just throws up all that partially eaten carrion which would be noxious to the adversary! I think that in my next life, I’d like to be a turkey vulture! I always wanted to be a redhead, anyway!
With that said, you probably realize that turkey vultures don’t have many predators. And you’d be right. Some eagles, hawks, and owls might go after the younger fledglings. Other animals, such as raccoons, fox, and opossums enjoy the eggs and chicks.
Turkey vultures live for around 20 years. They are a migratory bird that prefers a warmer climate. With global warming, these birds are slowly moving into more northerly areas during the summers, which means their numbers are increasing. Which, I suppose, is good because they do a very valuable job in nature.
But vultures do have their problems. Because they eat carrion, they are often found on roadways. This can lead to many being hit and killed by traffic. And being the misunderstood animal that they are, misinformed people do trap and kill them, thinking that the vultures spread disease. Unfortunately, it is the opposite; turkey vultures ingest disease-spreading carrion from infecting other animals like us.
But that doesn’t mean that vultures can’t cause humans harm. Their excrement isn’t healthy for any living thing, and it seems they poo a lot! That makes for a lot of droppings when there are about 4 and a half million turkey vultures worldwide! On hot days, they tend to poo down their legs to help cool their bodies through evaporation, and to get rid of ticks and fleas. There are plenty of bacteria and parasites inside of vultures, which contain many diseases such as meningitis, salmonella, and encephalitis. So they prevent disease, but can contribute to it if we are not careful. Be careful….
As I write of being careful, I am reminded of a trip to South Dakota a couple of summers ago. Driving down a highway in our brand-new Subaru, there were 2 raptors enjoying carrion on the road ahead. I’m not sure if they were vultures as I was reading the map while my husband was driving. As we approached, the birds took off, but one was a bit slower. We hit it in the middle of our windshield. The impact was substantial, the noise incredible, and it completely spider-cracked the glass so that we could barely see out of it, and damaged the car’s eyesight which rendered the cruise control and all safety features useless. The raptor, most likely, fared worse.
Carrion on roads can be dangerous for both animals and drivers. Besides the possibility of cars killing the animals that are feeding, family members of the dead critter could also be at risk since babies and mates may stay with the dead body for a period of time. Knowing this, some good samaritans will move the dead critters off to the side of the road. Governments do realize that carrion on roads is a safety issue and they have crews that will remove dead animals. It is important, if people choose to do this, that they put their own safety, as well as the safety of other drivers, first.
So much has been written about vultures over time. Being scavengers of carrion, they were considered a harbinger of death and destruction, a sign of purification, or a spirit animal representing protection and defense from danger. Now that we are realizing a vulture’s benefit to communities, we should definitely be appreciating these remarkable animals!
You know how groups of animals are given special names? Like a “swarm” of bees, a “murder” of crows, a “pride” of lions? So what is a group of turkey vultures? Well, I’ll tell you. It depends on what they are doing at the time. If they are in flight they are referred to as a “kettle”. Why? Because in the evenings, they band together in a huge group and fly high in the air, catching thermal updrafts. From the ground they look like a boiling kettle! And then, if these vultures are just hanging around doing nothing, loads of them in the same tree or on the ground, they are called a “committee”. No explanation necessary! The best one is when the vultures are feeding on their dead carrion – they are called a “wake”. Their heads are down as though they are in mourning, keeping a watch over the dead…..how perfect!
Canadian turkey vultures do migrate south in the colder weather. Some of them travel even further south than other vultures that live year-round in the USA. Many are found down in Venezuela! The vultures, being social animals, travel in large groups, up to 400 birds. They begin their migration in early September, drifting on the rising warm air currents during the day rather than flapping their wings. The vultures eat well before they take this journey since they don’t usually stop to eat along the way. Their route usually traverses mountain ranges since this is where they find the best thermals that carry them all the way to South America.
Video of a turkey vulture flying in Santiago de Cuba by Macaulay Library
Speaking of the big vulture migration…. I was recently waiting at the airport for an Air Canada flight to South America, when I saw a turkey vulture standing in the boarding line-up for a flight down south. The vulture had 2 dead rats with it. But at check-in, the flight attendant told him that he couldn’t take both of the rats because he was only allowed 1 carrion!
OK, so March 15th, think fondly of our turkey vultures, and you are welcome to pass along that joke to everyone you see!
The pictures below tell a story of a pair of turkey vultures who were in love and hanging out at the Coke building, on Bayview, in Barrie Ontario courtesy of Jennifer Howard.
Note from the Editor:
In the Province of Ontario, depending on the class of highway, the local municipality, the Ministry of Transportation or a highway operations centre may be responsible for the removal of dead animals found along highways.
In Ontario, it may be possible for citizens to keep certain types of roadkill that they have found, however, in some cases they will have to register the animal with the Ministry of Natural Resources, by submitting a Register a Notice of Possession. Some examples of such animals would be raptors, turkey vultures, black bear, white-tailed deer, moose, American elk and woodland caribou.
To learn more about what types of roadkill may be kept, and how to register if needed, please refer to the following URL;