Avian Scavengers

Last week a friend told me about a road-killed deer in a field, visible and accessible from a secondary road. A mature bald eagle, crows, vultures and coyotes were feeding on the carcass at one time or another, so I visited the site hoping to capture some scavengers at work.

On the first trip, a dense fog limited visibility but the chatter of crows around the carcass gave me the approximate location.

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The next day was clear and bright and by mid morning the site was a chaotic scene of swirling vultures and noisy crows, about 10 birds in all.

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There was obviously a hierarchy among the vultures because some were forced off the carcass or to the fringe to wait their turn.

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There are nearly one million deer in New York state and large numbers of deer inhabit heavily populated areas, so deer-vehicle collisions are a routine occurrence. 70,000 to 80,000 deer-vehicle collisions occur annually (and that is just the number reported as insurance claims). Property damage averages several thousand dollars per incident.

Photos by NB Hunter. All Rights Reserved.

 

Our National Emblem

Thirty five years ago photographs of Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) would have made front-page-headlines. It was then that this magnificent bird of prey, our national emblem and a symbolic, spiritual bird to Native Americans, had to be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Pesticides were a major culprit, accumulating to toxic levels in the food chain and causing reproductive failures in predatory species. Since then, the Bald Eagle has made a remarkable come-back throughout North America and was removed from the Endangered Species list in 2007.

In the late 19th century many reservoirs were built in central New York to provide water for an extensive canal system and today, much of the land adjacent to them is a mosaic of farms and woodlands. This is good eagle habitat and eagle sightings are not at all unusual now, especially when a carcass shows up in an open field not far from a reservoir. Although fish are a dietary staple, Bald Eagles are opportunistic feeders and will spend several days competing with crows, vultures and other scavengers for the meat on a deer carcass.

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Mature Bald Eagle feeding on a deer carcass in mid-November

Earlier in the week, a friend called to tell me about a great photo op near home – a Bald Eagle (sometimes a pair) feeding on a deer carcass. I was fortunate enough to find one bird at the site on two different days. This post, including the photo above and the gallery that follows, features some highlights from that experience.

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Turkey Vultures

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.

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The wings, up to six feet across, are angled upward in flight

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Sunlight reveals the two-toned color of the undersides of the flight feathers

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.

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This bird moved several feet away from the road-killed deer it was feeding on when I approached

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Vultures move awkwardly on the ground and have some difficulty getting air-borne

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A clear view of the bare, red head during take-off

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Turkey Vulture feeding on a road-killed skunk

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.

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A perched bird about to take off

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.

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All photos by NB Hunter