Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Intriguing turkey vultures have an important job

By CHERYL KIMBALL March 16. 2018 10:05PM
While turkey vultures can soar high above the ground looking for prey, they usually eat a carcass near the side of the road. (Courtesy/Cheryl Kimball)

Most of us see an animal dead in the road every single day, often more than one a day. That’s a minimum observation of 365 dead animals a year. I find it the saddest part of a day — doubly tragic if I hit any animal be it squirrel or mouse or frog. But for the turkey vulture, it is a time of celebration.

“The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), which has an exceptionally large olfactory bulb, locates carrion by detecting the odor of a chemical (ethyl mercaptan) that is emitted by rotting meat” (“The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior”). A vulture recently detected the decaying carcass of a roadkill squirrel and was having some easy-won breakfast a couple miles from my house. I drove past him on my way home, grabbed my camera, and drove back stopping far enough from the dining bird as to not scare him (or her since the male and female are apparently indistinguishable). I snapped a few pictures until he took his snack and flew with it to a safer spot on a shaded area of a side yard.

According to Sibley, the vulture’s claws are not strong enough to carry prey; this vulture carried the squirrel in its beak and did not travel far or very high off the ground with it. Another passerby had stopped to take pictures as well. It is always nice to find that other people are intrigued enough by the natural world to stop for a few moments to observe.

Some interesting characteristics of the turkey vulture scattered through David Allen Sibley’s bird books include that they:

• Share more DNA with storks than raptors.

• Spray feces onto their bare long legs for evaporative cooling (as do other birds).

• Have vestiges of webbing between their toes.

• Have long legs and toes, adapted for walking.

• Mostly eat freshly dead animals, can eat more rotted carcasses without illness, and occasionally will capture live prey.

• Have been known to nest in abandoned buildings but usually in an undisturbed cave, rock crevice, or hollow tree trunk.

• Mate for life but will find another mate if theirs dies.

The turkey vulture gets a low ranking on the looks scale. While impressive with their large size and wide wingspan, their heads and upper necks are gnarly and feather-free — a meaningful adaptation for a bird that sticks its entire head into the body cavity of a dead animal to retrieve nutritious, and presumably delicious, internal organs. Roadkill, says Helen Snyder in a section on vultures in “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior,” has allowed the species to rise in population in the Northeast.

As many readers have likely witnessed, turkey vultures also soar overhead visually seeking dining opportunities. They can do this at slow speeds because of long outer primary feathers called “fingers,” that separate and allow the aerodynamic skill needed to soar at slow speeds necessary to find that prostrate squirrel on the edge of the road.

Turkey vultures flying overhead, which they often do in groups, can be distinguished by the two-toned underside of their wing — black and silverish flight feathers. When perched, one can see a key difference from their relative, the black vulture, in the turkey vulture’s long tail feathers. The black vulture’s territory does overlap with the turkey vulture, coming up the East Coast only to the mid-Atlantic, so you are unlikely to see a black vulture here in New England anyway.

The way “The Sibley Guide to Birds” describes the turkey vulture’s flight, it’s a wonder they can fly at all: “Wingbeats clumsy, slow; body moves up and down; flight unsteady, rocking.” And apparently vultures don’t have much to say; Stan Tekiela, in “Birds of New Hampshire and Vermont,” says the turkey vulture is mute. Sibley says: “usually silent; limited to soft hissing, clucking, and whining.”

This morning I once again saw a turkey vulture as I returned from my weekend trip to the feed store. This one hadn’t gotten lucky yet and was casually soaring over the dirt road I was on, crisscrossing the road and the bordering woods. That is where these birds shine — this bird was effortlessly and oh-so-slowly gliding just above the treetops.

The common term we hear, “buzzards,” is said by Merriam-Webster to have first been used in the 14th century and is from the Middle English word busard. In England, the entry goes on to explain, a “buzzard” refers to the Buteo genus of raptors (red-tailed and Swainson’s to name two). “In North America,” it says, a buzzard “is any of various New World vultures, especially turkey vultures.”

Despite the turkey vulture not being easy on the eyes and that you may want to feed one a TicTac before you ever gave it a little kiss, they perform an important clean-up job.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at

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