Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: How vultures find food has long been debated

STACEY COLE November 15. 2013 6:20PM

In our column of Oct. 12 we likened the turkey vulture, widely known as an unusual looking bird, to the camel, also a rather odd-looking animal. (Although true, birds are not always thought of as animals.) I noted that the camel has widely been spoken of because of its particular appearance, as having been put together by a committee.

After having read that column, one of our long-time Exeter reader-friends wrote: "Just a couple of turkey vulture experiences: (1) I grew up in the mountains of southwest Virginia in Franklin County. Buzzards were almost always in the air. Not too far from our home there was a rock up on the side of the mountain known as 'Buzzard Rock'

"One day a friend and I decided to climb up and investigate. We were probably 12 years old. When we got to the rock the smell was terrible. There were large birds, small birds, eggs, egg shells and broken eggs. It was an ugly sight. We did not stay!

"(2) As I mentioned in my last letter, I have a son who lives with his family in Anchorage, Alaska. I usually go up for a visit twice a year, summer and winter. Always take my cooler and bring home frozen fish and moose meat. The frozen fish always travels quite well, except, that is, for one time. On that trip the cooler arrived in Exeter about five days after I did. There was no doubt about the condition of its contents. They smelled bad!

"It was probably in early March. I unwrapped the packages (about 20 pounds of food) and put them at the edge of the woods behind our house. An hour or so later I saw two buzzards standing on the ground near the food. They left when they saw me. The buzzards must have a strong sense of smell to have picked up that aroma from wherever they were."

Vultures do have a strong sense of smell and also great eyesight. Arthur Cleveland Bent, in his volume 1, "Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey," wrote: "Since the days of Audubon, naturalists have speculated on whether vultures find their food by sight or by scent. They have sought to find the answer by experiments on the bird and have published the results of many of these. After going carefully over the literature on this fascinating subject a reader cannot feel convinced that the problem has been definitely solved even now. The evidence shows him that the vulture has keen eyesight and that it has an acute sense of smell. The reader finds, running through the controversy, a great deal of contradiction and refutation. No one article stands out as indisputable proof on either side to the exclusion to the other side, and many experiments present to the vulture problems that it would never meet under natural conditions. The literature to date leaves the reader with the belief that the vulture is a bird not very intelligent from the human standpoint, but alert and keen to detect the presence of food by every sense at its command."

Our Exeter reader enclosed two photographs of a bird he wished to have identified. I believe the photos were of a male purple finch.

The house finch and our state bird, the purple finch, are frequently mistaken, one for the other. The adult male purple finch is raspberry colored above, brightest on the head and rump. It is also raspberry-red below and on its throat and breast. There is very little streaking on its breast. The wings and tail of the male are brown and its face has a brown ear patch.

In contrast, the male house finch has red (sometimes orange-red) only on his eyebrow, breast and rump. Its belly and flanks are streaked and its back is solid brown. The female purple finch is brown above, whitish below with brown streaks; dark ear patch, light eyebrow and cheek stripe. On the other hand, the striped brown female house finch is heavily streaked below, has a smaller bill and lacks the ear patch as well as the eyebrow and cheek stripe of the female purple finch.

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Our so-called "winter" birds have or soon will be appearing at our feeders. Dark-eyed juncos appeared here at the farm on Oct. 24. While on the subject of our winter bird visitors, there are two species of sparrows, the American tree sparrow and the chipping sparrow that look quite a bit alike. While most of one species has or is moving to the south, the other is moving in from the north.

Both species of sparrows have chestnut or rusty caps, a brown back and a white breast (sexes alike). The foremost differences between the two that should be noted include the following: The American tree sparrow has a spot on the breast, a gray line above the eye and a rusty line through the eye while chipping sparrows have no breast spot, a white line above the eye and a black line through the eye.

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.

Nature Talks

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