I was looking for a "shot" of a bald eagle when I headed out before sunrise to a perch that this particular eagle often goes to at first light. Near the area there were a couple of turkey vultures sitting on the dirt road trying to dry their wings for their morning flight. I grabbed a few photos and then another one flew in, and that's when I noticed there were about five of them in the trees next to the road. I never get out of my vehicle when photographing, because that is the surest way to spook wildlife, so I continued down the road and when the eagle was not where he was supposed to be I headed back to the vultures. A slow approach put me right next to them with perfect light conditions and for about 20 minutes they posed nicely for me.
The turkey vulture is not a heavy bird, only averaging about 3.5 pounds, but he is large with a wingspan of almost 6 feet. He is brownish black with a red, featherless head and neck.
He's kind of a gross bird, and stinky, too. He doesn't kill his food, he just eats what other wildlife don't or won't eat, including skunk. He also has a habit of excreting on his own legs to help cool them (you'll often see these birds with feces on their backs where another bird above them in the roost excreted). The acid in his digestive tract is so strong that botulism and cholera bacteria, which would wipe out many other species, simply passes through. This helps remove dangerous organisms from the environment and helps protect other species.
He looks for food by soaring on thermals; he hardly ever flaps his wings.
Vultures are sometimes mistaken for eagles. The difference is that eagles keep their wings in a straight line parallel to the ground while vultures hold theirs in a slight “V.” They also hold their heads drawn into the feathered part of their neck, giving the appearance of a shorter head than an eagle.
Vultures are often thought of as just dumb buzzards, but I don’t think so. For a bird that is not hunted they are very cautious. The click of a camera from a photo blind at close range will send one flapping off quickly. When the adults return to feed the young they often hang around nearby for awhile, pretending nothing is happening, maybe trying not to give away the exact location of the nest.
Another unique feature of the vulture is his highly developed sense of smell, which most birds do not have. He in fact locates much of his food this way.
Vultures do not build nests; instead they lay their eggs, generally two, in a hollow log or tree or sometimes on a rock ledge, on top of whatever debris is there. It is also thought that they nest only every other year.
For several years I had a pair nesting in a large, hollow tree about 75 yards from my house. The entrance hole was 17 feet off the ground and the nest was inside, on the base of the tree. Don’t ask me how such a large bird got up and down the inside of that tree.
Vulture eggs are incubated for 30 to 40 days by both parents. When they hatch they are very ugly and skip the cute stage. The chicks are fed by the parents regurgitating extra food they ate while feeding. If the young are disturbed, they hiss very loudly, like a cat. If that does not scare away the intruder they will throw up the very stinky contents of their stomachs. That usually sends me off.
The young generally leave the nest site between late August to mid- September but will hang with and learn from the parents for up to six months.
Vultures' ability to soar is some times unbelievable; they seem to do it with no effort even in high winds. The wing feathers must be completely dry for gliding. This is why you will see them sitting in dead trees in the early morning sun, with their wings spread.
The turkey vulture is not one of our most loved birds but it is very unique with its great sense of smell, ability to eat things that others will not, remove dangerous bacteria from the environment and soar gracefully for hours with hardly a wing beat. Take some time to watch a vulture gliding in the sky. They truly soar with the eagles and generally do a better job of it.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or email@example.com .