Turkey Vultures

Kids Outdoor Outpost March 2018

Joe Schuster | March 2, 2018

I was returning from a recent hiking excursion on Sawnee Mountain the other day when I passed several turkey vultures nibbling on a recently deceased squirrel. The furry critter met his maker surely by trying to decide which side of the road to run to in an attempt to escape an approaching vehicle. He didn’t make it. Certainly, you have also witnessed seeing these birds doing what they do best, which is usually cleaning up the roadside of dead animals. So let’s dig in and find out more about this odd looking bird.

The turkey vulture is a scavenger and feeds almost exclusively on dead animals called “carrion.” The bird has great eyesight and the ability to smell, which allows it to smell the gases of animals that are beginning to decay. You probably have seen them in flight as they coast around using the thermals in the air to search for their next meal.

During deer season, they have helped many a hunter locate a downed deer that was unable to be recovered. I was able to find one of mine by seeing where they were circling the day after searching for an arrowed deer that we could not locate. It was too late to save the meat, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had in fact, killed the deer with my shot.

To many, turkey vultures are nasty-looking birds with strange behaviors. They usually will find a cave, hollow tree, or thicket to call home, though its believed the only time they will enter a cave is to breed.

Last summer, a friend took me on a hike at Yonah Mountain. When we got near the top, two vultures had a nest in the crevice of the mountain, and a young vulture was with them. As I peered into the crack to take a look, I noticed one of the “parents” intently watching my every move from a nearby tree limb. I have to tell you, it was a very eerie feeling. They feed their chicks by a process known as regurgitation, which is vomiting food that they have already eaten. Yuck!

Perhaps you have even noticed vultures parked on a rail or fence with their wings outstretched; motionless, as if they were frozen to the fence. I witnessed several perched like this on a recent, rainy afternoon. Interestingly, their stance on the fence serves several purposes: it allows the wings to dry, it warms their body, and it can bake off bacteria. Another odd practice is that the turkey vulture often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself.

How does it protect itself from predators? Well, it’s primary form of defense is to vomit semi-digested meat, which smells awful and will usually deter most critters that thought raiding a vulture nest was a good idea. If the vulture does need to flee the nest, many times it will also vomit a recent heavy meal in order to take flight. Do not mistake these birds as turkeys, even though the adults are quite large and usually sport a red head. In the United States, the vulture receives legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

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