Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

By: Cookie Ferguson

 “The turkey vulture?!” you say. Yes, indeed, the turkey vulture is one of nature’s most amazing birds. They get a very bad rap in literature of all kinds especially with the upcoming Halloween holiday, but consider our planet without the services of this bird. I can’t even imagine what it might look or smell like. Yuck!

          Turkey vultures are uniquely equipped to perform the job they were given. First, their heads are featherless to keep them somewhat clean and the red color blends in with the job at hand. You can look straight through their nostrils, which helps keep them clean. This is very important when you’re scavenging old carcasses! 

          The task of finding food is made easier for them as Turkey Vultures can smell their dinner from up to a mile away. This is why you often seen them gliding up on the wind thermals all day: they are always looking for food! Consider also that they have no talons with which to attack their prey. Therefore, they must wait patiently circling above until it is easily accessed. Without talons, one might think that they are easily vulnerable to other predators. But after one such encounter, the aggressor learns his lesson. When frightened, the Turkey Vulture has the unique ability to projectile vomit. I’ll let you think about what stomach contents might be coming at you!

          Turkey vultures are found in our region during the Spring to early Fall seasons. Once frost is in the air, they must migrate south to find their food. During the hot summer months, you would think this species would get tremendously hot since it is clothed in all black feathers. He must have a way of cooling himself and he does. He defecates on his legs to create evaporation and cool his body. An astounding adaptation in the avian world.

            Sometimes a “committee” of vultures (as many as 12-15) can be seen sitting in a tree in the early morning. They sit with outstretched wings to dry from overnight moisture and the exposure to the sun helps with any bacterium or parasites, which is a constant problem for these scavengers. They do a lot of pruning to help with this, too. They nest in a loosely made structure on the ground, having one clutch of 2-3 eggs.

I wanted to meet one of these birds close-up. To do this I traveled to Sarett Nature Center in Benton Center, Michigan and met with “Val”. She is an “Animal Ambassador” at Sarett and presents herself to many children and adults. Val weighs 4-5 pounds and has a wingspan of about six feet. She’s a lucky vulture as she gets to eat everyday but Monday. She gets one or two freshly thawed and slightly warmed mice as well as a treat from the local meat market when she gets to pick on a fresh bone.

Val was injured probably in an auto collision as they are not fast to take to the air when on a kill in the roadway. They tend to eat more than they need (sound familiar?) and must regurgitate before they can fly. Even though I’m told she’s a little on the grumpy side, she did want to share with something not every sees or knows. She has a beautiful white underside. This bird is indeed a unique and amazing part of the avion community.

Thanks to Sarett and Val for their help, as well as Mike Mahler.

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