Monday, March 27, 2006

Joyful, Joyful Turkey Vulture

I love the Turkey Vulture. It is absolutely, unreservedly my favorite bird. Don't let its scraggly face and its roadside eating habits fool you, this bird is a charmer. Oh sure, it has a face only another turkey vulture could love. And it eats recently dead herbivores. Just put all that aside for a moment.

It is extraordinarily playful.

The turkey vulture weighs about 6 pounds - much of that taken up in a wingspan of just over 6 feet. Imagine that. Take Jay Leno, lay him on his side, and the wings of the turkey vulture will reach from his head to his feet. And, like Leno, you have a zesty, life-loving creature.

Turkey vultures soar with slightly uplifted wings, in a slight V-shape. (Fancy schmantzy bird books call this a 'dihedral formation'.) They wake up in the morning, stretch their wings out in the sun to warm them up and they are off. It is time to seek out some warm air, and start riding the great circles of the thermals.

They can glide as far as 6 miles without having to flap their wings. They "feel" the air as they play the updrafts with their wing-tips acting like fingers. They are often seen in groups (the word is not 'flocks' but 'venues') of several turkey vultures all swooping around in the thermals. They are not, as is often thought, circling something waiting for it to die. (They actually prefer their meat very slightly aged.) They are just playing. A venue of vultures at play. Sheer delight!

One woman reports a story of having several bright colored balls for her kids in the back yard. She looked out her window and saw several turkey vultures in the yard playing with a ball, nudging it back and forth at eachother with their beaks. They only liked the orange one. They did this for days on end.

Another report is of a Turkey Vulture who took a liking to a young boy. He would wait for him in the morning on a telephone pole, fly overhead as the boy went to school, and would escort him home every day.

People who rehab injured birds report that the Turkey Vulture can get very attached to them, following them around like a dog -- and that they learn very quickly, and love to play fetch and tug of war.

The Turkey Vulture's digestive system kills any virus and bacteria in the food the bird eats. His diet includes as much as 50% vegetative matter, and his droppings are actually clean and do not carry disease. Essentially the Turkey Vulture consumes animals that without him would rot and spread disease. By the time the turkey vulture finishes with them, his system has sterilized them.

The Turkey Vulture lacks strength in its tiny grasping claw and does not and cannot kill. This is why the Cherokees call it the "Peace Eagle" as it is mighty, but does not kill to survive.

They lay their eggs in little scratched out areas in the dirt, or in gaps between rocks, but at night they roost in a nearby tree with others who share their roost. They are very communally oriented, and will come back over and over to the same roost after migrating. They and their immediate descendents have been known to occupy the same roost for over 100 years.

So there they are at night, about to settle in, but what do they do for the last half hour or so before sleep? They play -- things like follow-the-leader , or they fly straight up almost out of sight and dive bomb back down.

The first time I saw them, I thought UGH what UGLY birds! They seemed creepy and villainous. But then I started to learn about them. Now when I see them soaring high overhead, gliding with more grace than I have ever seen any bird have, I stop to watch and admire them. Now that I know about them, I can appreciate them. (No need to drive that lesson home, is there?) Now they just make me happy and giddy whenever they are around.

So keep your fluffy little sparrows and robins, your cardinals and juncos, your plovers and sandpipers. I like them, mind you. They are all fine little chirpers. But when I seek real beauty and character in the bird world, I will be found admiring the beauty, friendliness and the joy of the Turkey Vulture.

They may well be the happiest birds I know.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tried to bring the picture over but it didn't make it. Copy and paste.

If you want to see a great companion vulture for the Turkey Vulture, check out the California Condor - head view - uggggllly. Scroll down.


12:17 AM  
Blogger Shupac said...

They were rare when I was a kid, but have become pretty common in Michigan. A few years ago, while a friend and I were driving home from a trip, we saw a long line of vultures descending into a treeline for the evening. We pulled over and watched for at least ten minutes while wave after wave of the vultures came in. They were still going strong when we left. Unforgettable.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Maggie Rose said...

good post, mata...I especially liked the way you re-told their dirtiness/cleanliness story and what a vital role these great birds play in the enviornment. Maggie

4:09 AM  
Blogger Miss Eagle said...

In Australia, the wedge tail eagle takes care of our road kill. I used to live in the Northern Territory - and there are mobs of them along the Stuart Highway.
Blessings and bliss

4:33 AM  
Blogger Becky said...

Turkey vultures are also known as Buzzards. They return to Hickley, Ohio every year at this time and in the Fall they go to Boca Raton, Florida. I know this because my family goes to Buzzard Day as a yearly ritual. At the Hinckely Elementary school there is a pancake breakfast to start off the Buzzard Sunday. Then people are invited to go up to Buzzards Roost in the Cleveland Metroparks to see live buzzards that return to the Buzzards Roost every year. The story goes that a farmer had slaughtered cattle in the field and buzzards came for their dinner. They are quite intelligent and return every year. Storytellers tell of buzzard folklore and it is quite a lovely tradition in Hinckey Ohio.

5:28 PM  
Blogger beth said...

What a great, great post! Funny and entertaining - and EDUCATIONAL! Take this message to the world!

Seriously, I learned something here, Mata. Thanks for writing....I'll never look at this bird the same way again.

11:18 PM  
Blogger wolf21m said...

Every bird should be lucky enough to have an admirerer like you. I liek them too. I saw four of them only yesterday. Thanks for sharing.

7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mata--

They truly are charming, delightful, friendly creatures. I'm a volunteer at sanctuary and have come to know one very well. Her eyes are brown, and they are always full of happy expectancy. How she loves a little snack! And how she follows like a puppy when she has learned to trust you!

9:07 PM  

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