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Spring 2001 Edition

Sky-High: the Turkey Vultures
by Sue Holloway

"Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
- Albert Einstein

cc-tvulture (1).jpg (16307 bytes)This time of year, we look skyward, for bald and golden eagles and other great soaring raptors, such as northern harriers and red-tailed hawks. The eagles, hawks, falcons, and other raptors are migratory species, with small numbers of each wintering in Connecticut.

Although turkey vultures get less frequent press than eagles, they provide an equally rapturous impression as they float in effortless grace on thermals, updraft currents from warming air. And believe it or not, there are festivals for these type of birds, just as there is an eagle festival in Essex.

In Peru, there are festivals celebrating the great Andean condor. On the west coast of the U.S., the California condor is the mythic "thunderbird" of coastal peoples, such as the Tlingit. In traditional terms, the bird made thunder by flapping its wingsn; it shot lightening from its eyes.

w-tvulture.jpg (28804 bytes)Turkey vultures (cathartes aura) are considered harbingers of spring in certain areas of the Midwest. In Hinckley, Ohio (28 miles from Cleveland), March 15 is designated as Buzzard Day. Since the early 1800's, these birds have always appeared on the same day.

A few "pilot" vultures glide in, circling amidst cheers. Within a month, the flock grows. Already in the late sixties, some forty thousand visitors journeyed to Hinckley to witness the birds’ appearance. (This, by the way, is nearly the same time that the osprey appear along the Connecticut shoreline. Look for them by March 24.)

The turkey vulture is one of two kinds of vultures in North America, which include the smaller black vulture, commonly associated with the South. The "t-v," as this vulture is known in the birding world, is about as tall as the bald eagle, with a glorious wingspan up to six feet wide.

Although classified with the raptors and included in hawk counts at Lighthouse Point each autumn, the turkey vulture was technically reclassified in the eighties by the American Ornithological Union, which proclaimed a link in DNA with the wood stork.

In "The Sibley Guide to Birds" (2000), author/artist David Sibley groups the turkey vulture with the black vulture and condors, as a "New World Vulture." The wood stork, he explains, has many "distinctive habits" and is classified in a separate family from other large wading birds, such as the Roseate Spoonbill, Ibises, Heron, and Flamingos.

This stork does, however, have certain similar obvious characteristics as the turkey vulture. Both appear in "kettles" of soaring flocks. And both species are silent as adults, except for hissing, and the sound of the wind through the pinions.

The turkey vulture, like the wood stork, is identifiable by its bald head and neck. But the t-v’s is red, whereas the stork’s is black.

Also distinctive is the effect of light through the birds’ feathers. When the vulture is in flight on a sunny day, if you face upward from a certain angle, you can see the shawl-like effect of sun filtering through light-colored feathers. It appears as if the bird is adorned in a golden cloak, providing a glimpse of why birds with such forms are often considered regal and spiritually-powerful.

Take Nekhebet (Nekbet), the vulture goddess of Egyptian mythology. Although the modern western world has tended to view such a bird as odious, the vulture in ancient Egyptian culture was seen as the guardian of the pharoahs. Not inviting death, but paradoxically, protecting even the dead from death, it protected the soul that lives even after death.

Observing the vultures in this area, I found them to be empathic in their relationship with each other. One time, an individual vulture with several primary flight feathers missing, was caught in a gust and thrown sideways at treetop level, nearly crashing.

Immediately, several companions imitated the action, assuming a similar risk, as if to reassure the bird with the flawed wing. It seemed to be an affirmative response to what we humans might consider to be a "handicap."

Along the shoreline, you may find turkey vultures in North Guilford, CT, near the dam area of Lake Quonnapaug. In the early nineties, when I lived in the area, I commonly found roosts of these birds in high hemlock overlooking the lake. Turkey vultures seem to prefer conifers, such as high pines or spruce, but will also roost in hardwood varieties, if other conditions are right.

At Lake Quonnapaug, high ridges surrounding the lake provide perfect updrafts of currents for these birds. While they are most often seen soaring for hours on end, the t-v’s also become highly playful, when gusts of wind challenge creative responses.

One time, uphill from the dam area, I stood looking toward the lake, as the vultures choreographed an amazing performance of stunts. Each would approach from behind me, swooping and diving like gulls. The individual – suddenly an acrobat – would play on gusts of wind.

One flipped totally over. They swerved, raced, soared. Sometimes, these great birds looked so graceful they resembled the flight of swallows.

A neighbor had informed me these birds were "turkey buzzards," mixing the scientific common name, Turkey Vulture, with the historic nickname, buzzard. The neighbor often saw them perched on fence posts in a nearby field. He liked the birds, but said, "They give my wife the creeps."

How can such a magnificent bird be seen as repulsive? It is their diet: carrion, the meat of dead animals. The turkey vulture does not kill for its dinner, but rather helps "clean up" the environment, eating natural and man-made deaths. (To protect them and other scavengers, stop and remove road kill from the roadway.)

It makes us feel "sick" at such a notion, of eating carrion. For good reason. Biologically speaking, if humans tried this, they could contract botulism, which can lead to paralysis and death. The t-v’s are somehow immune to this problem. They serve an important role in the natural world. By eliminating the flesh of dead creatures, vultures help keep botulism in check.

Historically, t-vs were shot at and diminished in numbers, like eagles and hawks. In 1972 and 1980, turkey vultures were "blue-listed," i.e., placed on the National Audubon Society’s list warning of impending or ongoing losses of regional bird populations. And in 1982, they were placed on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife list of Special Concern species.

The raptors remind us that public sentiment on what we admire and agree to protect shifts through the years. These birds remind us to respect all life. Then we are able to see the mystery of each creature. In the case of the turkey vulture, we witness a soaring spirit in the bird that dons the golden cloak of the sun.

Return to Anecdotes Spring 2001 Edition


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