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Dan Jordan’s Wild World: Vultures

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Amazing images and insight on a most misunderstood family of birds

By Dan Jordan, JordanPhotog.com

Vultures are the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the bird world.  To paraphrase the catchline of the late comedian, “they can’t get no respect!”

People call them ugly, unsavory, and disgusting.  Some even think that they serve no purpose.

This could not be further from the truth.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, yes, but a close examination of a vulture can reveal its natural beauty.  As to purpose, vultures serve a very useful purpose, they’re the cleanup crew for Mother Nature.

Without vultures, there would be a lot more roadkill littering our roadways and the associated smells and bacteria which accompany decomposing animals.  Those bacteria can spread disease among animals and even people.  Vultures also help to sustain plant life by returning nutrients to the environment.

In our neck of the woods, turkey vultures can be found in great numbers, but they are not the only species of vulture native to north America.  South of us, black vultures are common.  And, in the west, the only bird larger than the bald eagle (in North America) is the California Condor, which is a vulture.

Many people believe that turkey vultures got their name because they eat turkeys.  While a turkey vulture may dine on a turkey carcass when one presents itself, turkeys make up only a minuscule percentage of a turkey vulture’s diet.  Turkey vultures were named so because of their heads’ resemblance to a turkey’s head.  It’s as simple as that.

Turkey vultures have an extraordinary sense of smell.  They can smell rotting flesh from thousands of feet in altitude, even in windy conditions.  Despite popular belief, they also have very good vision.  Vultures use this keen vision to watch other vultures dive for a meal.  Very often, a crowd of vultures will gather at a carcass once one is spotted headed for one.

Vulture’s heads are devoid of feathers for two reasons.  Primarily it is because they root around inside of dead carcasses.  A lack of feathers makes them less prone to accumulating bacteria and parasites.  Secondarily, their “bald heads” offer the advantage of cooling the birds more quickly than a feathered (insulated) head would.

Vultures typically nest in dead trees, gaps in rock piles, sides of rocky cliffs, etc.  They typically do not build nests.  Young vultures are fed a steady diet of regurgitated carrion (very appetizing).  Young turkey vultures are browner and have grey heads until they turn one year and then their heads start to turn pink.  At about two years of age, their heads become red as we are used to seeing.

Juvenile turkey vultures, by virtue of their grey heads, are often mistaken for black vultures.  It is a rare sight to see a black vulture in our “neck of the woods”.  This is a common mistake, much like juvenile bald eagles are often mistaken for golden eagles in NYS.

Vultures migrate to Mexico, Central America, and even South America in the winter but return to our area ahead of most other migrating species.  Some residents of southern states do not migrate due to the mild winter weather.  The primary reason for migration is that vultures, unlike eagles, lack the anatomy to eat frozen food.  When their primary food source (carrion) freezes, they cannot pry the food apart and would starve if they remained here.

Vultures ride thermals during migrations to conserve energy.  They can travel great distances without flapping their wings, given the right conditions.  They, therefore, avoid migrating in the early morning and on rainy days, when the sun does not create thermals/updrafts.  Vultures have been known to fly as high as 20,000 feet (very thin air) to fly over storm systems.  They tend not to fly over large bodies of water.

We have a flock of turkey vultures (technically called a committee) which roosts a few hundred yards from our home.  They fly over early in the mornings and then come back to roost in the evenings.  Being the age that I am, I jokingly refer to their flyovers as “wellness checks”.  I can often be heard quoting the Monty Python actors by yelling “I’m not quite dead” to individuals as they fly over.  My wife doesn’t see the humor in that, so I respond to her that, “it wasn’t meant to be funny”. 

One morning, we looked out of our living room window to see a committee of turkey vultures roosted in a tree just across the street, see the next photo.  I couldn’t have been happier, but I heard a lot of grumbling from others in the neighborhood.  By the way, vultures are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.  Don’t even think about killing or harming them or tampering with a nest site, taking their eggs, etc.  The long arm of the law will surely track you down.

One last fact before I share some photos from my collection of vulture images.  Many people have a hard time telling soaring vultures from bald eagles.  There is an easy way.  Eagles and many other species of raptors (osprey and red-tailed hawks to name two) soar with flat wings.  You could draw a straight line from tip to tip of their wings.  Vultures soar with a distinctive V-shape to their wings.  Also, if you see a large group of large soaring birds, they are likely vultures.

This photo was the view outside of our living room window one morning one summer morning this year.  This is a small portion of the committee of turkey vultures which roost in our vicinity.

The next photo is of a turkey vulture that I spotted at the Barnum Swamp in Eldred, PA in April.  There were a few vultures perched low in a tree near the road and allowed me some portraits.

Note the red head of an adult and the resemblance to a turkey’s head.

The next image is of a pair of black vultures that I photographed at the Conowingo Dam in Maryland.  The difference in features between black vultures and turkey vultures are apparent in this photo.

There is an interesting story to be shared here.  When one drives into Fisherman’s Park at the dam there is a warning sign that vultures will damage your vehicle.  It turns out that some models of cars have wiper blades and other rubber parts made in Japan where fish oil is used as mold release.  The vultures have such a keen sense of smell that they can smell this fish oil and literally tear of the wiper blades and sunroof gaskets to get at the “dead fish”.

The next image is of a turkey vulture from a roosting committee in Friendship, NY.  It is in the horaltic position.  This is a position that vultures will use to warm up on cool mornings, once the sun appears, or to dry off after a rain shower.

The next image is one I stumbled onto.  I was driving at sunrise one day this summer, looking into the glare from the sun, low in the eastern sky, when this roosting turkey vulture appeared in my view.  I was able to capture some closeups of the bird before leaving it to its business.  I was no more that 20 feet from this vulture.  It was too busy sniffing me to determine my “health status” to fly off.  (My wife’s not going to like that one!)

Interestingly, animals start to exude a chemical before death, once death is imminent.  The smell of death precedes the actual event.  So a vulture can actually tell you are going to die before you know it.  They will sit and patiently wait for death to ensue when they detect this odor from a near-death animal, since they will almost never eat a live animal.  They really lack the skill (and tools) to kill their meals.

The image to the right was captured in the city of Olean when I spotted two vultures in a tree, low over the Allegheny River.

The last image is one of my all-time favorite images, not just of vultures, but of all my wildlife collections.  I had the opportunity to host Bwana Jim, of Bwana Jim’s Wildlife Show, in my studio this summer. Bwana Jim’s animals are rescued and are unable to be returned to the wild.  He gives phenomenal presentations with the theme of conservation. 

His turkey vulture is named Verne and Verne graciously agreed to pose for the photographers.  This low-key closeup image highlights the facial features (and beauty in my mind) of turkey vultures.

Well, that’s it for another edition of Dan Jordan’s Wild World.  I hope you keep your eyes open for our local turkey vultures.  They will be leaving soon for parts south but rest assured that they will be back in the early spring to resume their duties as the custodial staff of nature.

Dan Jordan is an Allegany resident, a professional photographer, scientist, and nature lover.  Many of his photos are on display at his studio in Olean, NY and on his Facebook page.

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