I saw my first Turkey Vultures over four decades ago while traveling to an isolated mountain stream to camp and fly fish with my father and his friend. It was my first attempt at fly fishing and to be honest, the vulture sighting was more memorable than the handful of trout and hundreds of stream-side branches that I managed to catch in seven days of commando-style fishing. The birds were soaring and gliding effortlessly just above my head and the prominent rock outcroppings that had been exposed in the construction of the highway right-of-way. I’ve been fascinated by vultures ever since. I appreciate their ecological role as scavengers and admire their ability to rapidly cover great distances at any elevation with barely a wing beat. Some of their appeal also relates to the frequency and closeness that such a large bird can be seen. When walking, I find myself looking down more than up and am always caught off guard by the large, moving shadow of a vulture gliding and teetering along, just above the treetops.
Turkey Vultures are scavengers that rely on carrion as their primary food source. Their slow flight at low elevations, featherless head and highly developed sense of smell (not typical of other birds) are adaptations for this ecological role. In central New York, road-killed deer are a major part of their diet but dead raccoons, opossums, groundhogs, cottontails and even skunks are eaten if accessible. I have watched a small flock of six to eight Turkey Vultures feeding on a dead deer no more than 30 feet from the edge of a secondary road, tolerating traffic for an opportunity to feed.
Several years ago I discovered a curious behavior of vultures while camping in the forested mountains of north-central Pennsylvania. I took a camera walk soon after the sun made its way clear of a high mountain ridge and discovered several birds perched in a large, dead tree adjacent to a swampy beaver meadow. They were perfectly still, with their wings spread. Apparently this perching behavior serves to warm, dry, or cool, depending on the circumstances. It may even help reduce the bacteria associated with feeding on nasty things. The weather at that time was oppressively hot and humid, so I guessed that there was no need to warm up.
Fortunately, Turkey Vultures are a federally protected species and have been increasing in abundance in North America over the past 30 years or so. It is important that we understand and appreciate their role in removing animal carcasses and helping to bring the food chain full cycle.
All photos by NB Hunter