Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Turkey Vultures

Click to enlarge
Driving across our newly cut pasture yesterday afternoon I was greeted by large black birds scattered across the distant field, awkwardly taking flight.  Soon I could count over 20 birds, as others disappeared behind the tree line.  They gained altitude slowly as they intermittently flapped their wings, then glided as they climbed in circles, their wings occasionally dipping to the side like they are a little tipsy.  Their flight* and the white trailing feathers under their wings confirmed that they were Turkey Vultures. 
We commonly see three to six Turkey Vultures circling above our valley.  They greet us in early morning, stretching their wings on a tall dead tree to warm up in the first rays of sun.  Frequently we will come around a corner, startling them into reluctant flight, a premature departure from their tasty treat of a dead raccoon or possum.
We see a dramatic increase in numbers for a few weeks each fall.  According to Peterson, Turkey Vulture migration occurs the last week in September and the first week in October.    They are "Present year-round in much of southern United States, but northern birds migrate long distances, some reaching South America.  Migrates in flocks, and may travel long distances without feeding."
As carrion feeders with a bald red head, they are repulsive to many people.  We need to remember that without them, many carcasses would lie rotting for months.  Vultures are frequently the first step in nature's recycling program, opening up the hide which allows crows and other secondary feeders access to the best parts.  They are particular about what they eat, waiting to land until their meal is medium rare, that is when it is appropriately "ripe" and easy to tear into.
There is a comprehensive discussion of Turkey Vultures at the vulturesociety site.  For a more poetic description of the Turkey Vultures on Bull Creek , go to my neighbor, Cynthia Andre's article in this year's Missouri Conservationist.

* See video of their flight patterns here.

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