Turkey Vultures at the Oasis of Mara, 29 Palms, California
13 Mar

The Turkey Vulture – “Our Seasonal Scavenger”

by Naturalist Pat Flanagan – 3/13/2018
Early in the year you often see kettles of turkey vultures in Twentynine Palms, with the birds gracefully rocking from side to side as they ride the thermals of rising hot air in the desert. In the early evenings they begin their roost—dark brush strokes hunkered in the tamarisk trees or the towering fan palms; mornings, black wings spread, they absorb the warm sun before take-off. This is a yearly spectacle that always lifts my spirits.

So, I decided, these vultures, dour reminders of life’s shortness, were worth looking into. I have discovered a number of interesting facts about vultures, and surprisingly, none of it is gloomy or forbidding.

“Well,” you say, “they make disgusting dining choices; they eat dead (frequently long dead) things! Imagine the putrefying stench… and the texture.” I am, but first let us agree that we don’t want a great mass of smelly dead critters lying about, covering the landscape and fueling epidemics as well as the atmosphere.

When first researching turkey vultures I found a statistic that natural resource managers from neighboring Nevada estimate there are 10 million rabbits living in the state with several million dying each year. Rabbit populations fluctuate in rhythm with available resources, but accepting these numbers, mentally add up all the animals worldwide that die on the surface of the earth and you can begin to appreciate the important work of scavengers. (While appreciating vultures, please also appreciate the blow flies, carrion beetles, ravens, and coyotes for this important nature’s service.)

This carnage brings up two interesting olfactory points. Most birds have an underdeveloped sense of smell, which is why, regardless of what you have been told, it is permissible to return a baby bird reeking with your scent to its nest. The mother will not reject it. However, New World Vultures, especially the condor and turkey vulture, have a keen sense of smell along with excellent eyesight, both of which are used to find carrion.

You will be relieved to know (had you been worrying) that turkey vulture excrement is sanitized. They can bury their naked red heads in rotten, disgusting, diseased carcasses and eat their fill without harmful effects because their digestive systems kill off all the bacteria and viruses. Medical scientists are intrigued and have begun exploring the vulture’s ability to disinfect rodent carcasses tainted with Hantavirus and to consider the implications for biological warfare and worldwide epidemics (what would those scientists be thinking here?).

A turkey vulture pellet, a compact odorless mass of indigestible hair, bone, and vegetation regurgitated from the mouth, is smaller than a chicken egg. Pellets are not vomit that contain the stinky contents of the stomach. Pellets are common among many groups of birds like owls, ravens, and flycatchers that eat their food whole, or partly so, and end up with indigestible remains deep within their body.

A study of 400 turkey vulture pellets collected near Livermore, CA, were found to contain animal remains of rodents ranging in size from shrews to gophers, rabbits, birds, reptiles, raccoons, badger, skunk, coyote, and more. But the single most common ingredient, averaging 25% of the total dried weight, was vegetation! They need the roughage just like we do. Finally, years of turkey vulture observations confirm that they are clean animals, taking two to three hours a day to preen their feathers. Flocks of birds have been seen bathing in ponds, scrubbing, shaking, and slicking their feathers for up to half an hour.

They are great neighbors with exemplary family lives. During nesting season, a mated pair live by themselves, laying two eggs, and raising their young. Rather than building trophy-size stick nests, they lay their eggs on bare ground in protected sites such as a rock ledge on the face of a cliff, a cave, even a hollow tree or an abandoned barn. For the remainder of the year they live in family-oriented communal roosts. These roosts can go back more than 100 years, which means generations of the same family, have called the same trees home. Banding records show that individual birds will use the same branch in the same tree throughout their lives. They also like to go visiting other roosts, often being gone for several days before returning home. Skilled observers find it possible to interpret the eye contact and body language vultures use to maintain their communal pecking order. Interestingly, roosts are frequently chosen to be close to human habitation.

Turkey vultures appear to like humans. Caretakers in avian rehabilitation facilities report that they become attached to their handlers, following them around and watching much like a dog might. There are numerous examples of vultures adopting humans, showing up day after day just to keep company. The following story is nearly unbelievable.

In the wild and open country, a turkey vulture will sometimes become attached to a person. A lady in Southern California wrote that she and her husband would drive their car five miles from town and take a daily walk in the country with their dog. A turkey vulture would join them, soaring above and watching for a while. One day she broke her leg and stopped walking in the country for a while. During her recovery, she went into her backyard and there was her turkey vulture sitting on the fence, waiting to say hello—he had found her in a town of 12,000 people and come to visit.

Here is another example of their intelligence to consider. A woman built her vulture friends a tower-like feeding station in her backyard. One day, after they finished eating, she noticed the vultures standing in a circle around a soccer-sized ball, butting it back and forth to each other with their heads. Having invented this game, they played it each day, always choosing the same orange ball from a choice of four colored balls.

To quote caretakers from two Florida nature parks, “We find the vultures to be gentle, inquisitive, and very intelligent.” Great link: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Turkey_vulture.

When researching turkey vultures on this site, range maps show where and when you can expect to find each species. A great portion of the United States is shown as the summer or breeding area for turkey vultures. The remainder of the map, namely the southwest, mainland Mexico, the Baja California peninsula, and the western fringe of California north to above San Francisco, and then the Pacific Northwest into Canada, are shown as year-round sites. In this case year-round does not mean that you are necessarily seeing the same birds all year, just that you are apt to see turkey vultures any time. Mostly, these birds are migratory, flying north in January and February from Central and South America to breeding areas in the Pacific Northwest, passing, in our case, through the Morongo Basin and Twentynine Palms on their way. They return south in the fall.

Turkey vultures are extraordinary fliers, considered by many to be the most graceful soaring bird in the world. They fly with their wings in an outstretched V, and rarely flap, in contrast to other birds of prey that tend to fly with their wings straight out and flap more often. Gently rocking them from side to side, vultures soar with an unsteady look as they rise, circle, and glide, their flight describing the great thermal updrafts lifting from the warm desert floor.

Turkey Vulture Fact Sheet

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura. Translated as “pacifier” or “cleanser.” Length 26”; wing span 67”; weight 4 pounds. Color: dark brown to black, with silvery under-wing linings. The adult has a red head, the juvenile a black head. When perched they have a hunched posture and their pale, naked legs are visible. Both wings and tail are long.

Turkey vultures are large birds of prey once thought to be related to hawks and eagles. Adapted to feeding on carrion, their head and neck are naked of feathers, their feet are weak, adapted more for running than clutching, although the aggressive black vulture is known to take live prey and even attack horses, cows, and people. Their large beaks lack the shape and strength to tear into fresh flesh.

The Cherokee Nation called the turkey vulture “peace eagle” because its shape resembles an eagle and it does not kill.

The turkey vulture’s range extends all across the United States and into Canada. In warmer areas they may be year-round residents, but many migrate to Central and South America for the winter. Mainly seen in open country, they are also found in many cities such as Miami, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, and Reno. ###

Naturalist Pat Flanagan leads nature walks in the Oasis of Mara at 29 Palms Inn on weekend mornings. She is a longtime desert conservationist and recent recipient of the 14th annual Minerva Hamilton Hoyt Award presented by Joshua Tree National Park Association for her dedication to preserving and educating others about the desert.

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