SciSun: Talkin’ Turkey   Leave a comment

The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), by any account, is not a bird that most people hold in high regard. Aside from being burdened with a pair of uncomplimentary names, Turk, here, doesn’t appear to most people to live a very interesting life; and the activities it does undertake – for example, eating carrion (dead animals) until over-satiated, and then lounging in the sun until its food settles; is not necessarily what many of us would consider the best use of time. (Or maybe it just reminds us of little too much of some human behaviors…). Yet this under-appreciated avian, while not the archetype of productivity, still holds some surprises – and could be a direct link between our human world, and the natural environments that surround and support us.

Throughout much of the Americas – from the Midwest United States through the furthest portions of South America, the Turkey Vulture – sometimes also called a buzzard or carrion crow – holds such little interest they are considered as common as a brown and grey sparrow, easily mixing into suburban fields and vacant lots, or roosting on trees and fences. While generally harmless, farmers and ranchers sometimes mistake the birds as dangerous predators that need to be controlled – once seen dining on the remains of dead animals, it’s easy, although inaccurate, to believe the vulture killed that animal, even though Turk is actually rather timid, has fairly weak legs and feet, and couldn’t attack anything as large as livestock. So little is thought of these birds not much time or energy has gone into researching their lives, or the impact they make on the environment. Which is probably just fine with the vultures as they don’t want to be bothered anyway.

However, among bird-enthusiasts or ‘birders’ (‘birdwatchers’ implies spying on birds and you never know what secrets a bird is trying to hide), some admirers prefer the turkey vulture as their favorite among all other birds. Maybe it’s his size – Turk can be almost three feet long, with a six foot wingspan; or his free-as-a-bird soaring abilities (by navigating thermals – waves of air, at different temperatures, rising from the earth – vultures can fly for hours without flapping their wings and use very little energy, virtually surfing among the up- and down-drafts.); or perhaps the true charm of these birds is their unlovable appearance, itself – a bald, blackish-red skinned head; pale, almost colorless bill; and drab brown and black feathers that just makes some people love them even more. Any attraction can’t be due to its endearing behaviors, which include vomiting up to 10 feet as a form of self-defense, or urinating on its legs to keep them cool; or its beautiful voice (in fact, Turk doesn’t have much of a voice at all; the species lacks a syrnix, or bird ‘vocal cord’, and can only produce low groans and hisses it uses to declare territory, as a threat or just for general communication between other vultures). In spite of all that, among friends-of-birds the Turkey Vulture has gained quite a dedicated following, even celebrated at the Kern River Valley Vulture Festival, an annual Central California event featuring music, educational exhibits, vendor booths, nature walks and workshops. If there’s any food for sale please don’t vomit, as that’s only acceptable if you’re a turkey vulture..

“Pay no attention to us, no baby turkey vultures here, nothing to see.  But if you have any dead animals you're not needing we haven't had lunch yet.”

“Pay no attention to us, no baby turkey vultures here, nothing to see. But if you have any dead animals you’re not needing we haven’t had lunch yet.”

Considering the bird is among the largest in North America and often mistaken for his closely-related cousin, the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), a bird which dates back to the Pleistocene Epoch – the time of Mammoths and sabre-tooth cats – it’s not too surprising Turk has the admiration and respect of those-in-the-know. For a bird that flocks in groups numbering the hundreds, it’s hard to believe until just recently no one knew what type of nests the vultures made; how baby vultures are raised and cared for; or even where the birds prefer to live. Only within the past year have scientists with the University of California discovered the birds make nests deep in decayed and hollowed out tree stumps and fallen logs, disguised and uninteresting to most animals, and sometimes buried many feet in the ground. Some nesting sites appear to be too small for adults to maneuver, difficult to get into and impossible to fly out of for large birds, so how the adults manage is remarkable and a real mystery how young birds are ultimately able to leave home. Plus, it’s also probably hard for the teen birds to sneak back in after curfew.

For a bird to live, practically, under our feet; yet soar up to 20,000 feet above our feet (sometimes reported by airline pilots); the Turkey Vulture remains relatively unknown, enjoying its lifestyle of eating dead and decaying animals before dangerous bacteria and virus can spread (these harmful organisms are destroyed in the birds stomach and intestines); and, by mistaking the smell of escaping natural gas from a broken pipe as the same gasses produced by decay, notifying work crews of gas leaks by circling over the suspect spot in remote areas.  So to be able to communicate not only among themselves, but also in ways that humans can understand, is rather remarkable for a bird with no voice. And that’s not just talking turkey.


Michonne Says: Any bird that has six feet must be danger….Oh, he doesn’t have six feet, he’s a big as six feet. That makes more sense. But it still sounds dangerous. You never know when they might come out of the sky or jump down off a tree. And who’s feet are they as big as? It’s important to know so I can watch out for them.

Posted March 15, 2015 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in ECOVIA Central

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