Friday, July 24, 2009

Turkey vultures

I know very little about turkey vultures, but am fascinated by them. Thirty years ago when I reported I had just seen two vultures in Sublette County, I was met with disbelief. Although still not common here, we do have a few turkey vultures in the summer these days. Our western migrants spend winters in Central or South America. Official maps of turkey vulture summer distribution indicate we still have only a few in this region of western Wyoming. They are wary of human presence and are easily disturbed here, but I know that isn’t the case in areas where they are more abundant.

Hawkwatch International reports that there are about 2 million turkey vultures in North America, which it estimates is 29 percent of the global population. Hawkwatch also reports populations of the Turkey Vulture have:
• increased substantially throughout northeastern North America in the last 30 years and expanded the species’ range northward; and
• increased since the early 1980s in western North America, but declined since the onset of regional drought in the late 1999s.

If you know something about this species, please share some comments. I shot these photos of two vultures yesterday on my way to an artist guild luncheon at Boulder Lake Lodge, in the foothills of the western slope of the Wind River Mountains.


K said...

I don't know much about them, but I do know the numbers are increasing.

I grew up on the Niagara area, and *never* saw one my entire childhood. Starting ~15 years ago, you would start seeing one here or there - it was a memorable day when I drove past a vineyard to see dozens of them, each sitting on a post in the vineyard.

Now, it's a rare week that I don't see at least one flying around.

I have also heard that on the prairies, there numbers are increasing due to the availability of nesting sites, namely old abandoned homesteads. I have no verification for that however, and think the ban on certain pesticides would have more to do with the increase.

Steve Bodio said...

When I lived in New England they arrived in the seventies and are now common. Here in NM they are abundant in summer-- you see at least one in the sky at all times. There is a roost in the tall trees that front the campus of NM Tech in Socorro-- at dusk you can see dozens coming in from all points of the compass and descending. They disappear in the winter.

John Fleck said...

We were on a hike in Mesa Verde this summer, watching a foursome of turkey vultures soaring over the canyon, when we ran into a ranger. She told us that the birds - lots of them - settle in at night to roost at Spruce Tree House, the most accessible ruin (site of ranger station, museum, snack bar, etc.) So we came back that evening to watch, and they were amazing. My wife, Lissa, counted more than 50 coming in, a few at a time, over an hour.

They landed atop the far cliff face, in trees and on the rocks, warming themselves in the setting sun before settling in for the night in big trees in the canyon. As sunset neared, the far cliff was covered with vultures.

It was such an amazing sight that, later in the vacation, on our way back through southern Colorado, we made a point of returning. This time we arrived earlier, and Lissa counted more than 100. It's possible there's some duplication in that number (birds arriving, then slipping away and getting counted a second time) but whatever the final count, it was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.

Anonymous said...

I love Turkey Vultures, which have always been common in the Southeast where I have lived the majority of my life. We also have lots of Black Vultures, too, which, though a bit smaller, are more aggressive, and usually dominate on carcasses when the two species feed together. The Black Vultures have nubbier wings, and do not soar as gracefully as the turkey vultures. An interesting bit of trivia about them, is that they are closer related to storks and herons than raptors, and are not considered true raptors as are the Old World vultures. It is a rare day that I don't see lots of "buzzards", which is their erroneous, colloquial name, and I have also found a few nests with fat, hissing chicks covered in white fluff! Where I lived in the Appalachians, the vultures tended to nest on high cliffs and in caves or rock shelters. Where I am in the Uwharrie Forest in midstate N. C. now, nests I've found have been on the ground, usually under an overhanging rock. The adult birds often gather in huge flocks around landfills, which are a vulture's idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet! Interesting birds!...L.B.

Anonymous said...

A couple of interesting facts:

Turkey vultures "urinate" on their legs mainly to help cool them down through evaporation. Analogous to sweating in humans. Vultures also tend to vomit as a form of self-defense. This behavior makes putting jesses on them rather unpleasant.

Neutrino Cannon said...

My only up close experience was with one in a rehab facility. He was an evil-minded, mischievous and cheeky creature who liked nothing so much as to sneak up behind you and give your ankle a good hard peck, just to see you jump. Then he'd rip open the bags that you'd spent so long filling up with garbage and spread said garbage back across the enclosure.

Word from the old hands their was that such behavior isn't atypical of turkey vultures in captivity.

Anonymous said...

Did I miss anyone mention their highly developed sense of smell?,,and --sit down--it's better than dogs,,(argue amongst yourselves) I have a friend who was one of the authors of the Birds of NA life histories series on the T.Vulture) I'm taking care of their edu.TV right now and he's full of surprises.

They are sniffing the air while up soaring and watching others long distances away and if they see a fellow head for the ground they follow over there and see what's up or down,, very very intellegent like all birds,,

It is surmised that the reason Black Vultures haven't been moving North more, is that they are more heavily wing loaded than TVs, and don't get the hot temps they need for stronger thermals ,,at least here in the Midwest.

Cat Urbigkit said...

Thanks everyone, for the great stories. Anonymous, I was floored when you mentioned putting jesses on a vulture - ha! Why on earth would anyone try to do that?! Not enough excitement? Wanted to smell something really disgusting? Yikes!

Anonymous said...

The vulture was at a wildlife center. He was being trained for free flight during shows. He was also raised from a chick which meant he had a rather playful air about him. Only problem was that he picked his anklets off in no time at all, regardless of material.


Chas S. Clifton said...

This blogger is heavily into "buzzards" (turkey vultures) -- look at her "about me" box.

Apparently there is a spring turkey vulture festival in some New Jersey town.

Neutrino Cannon said...

Only problem was that he picked his anklets off in no time at all, regardless of material.

I can imagine it. Their bite is remarkably strong, way more than you'd think just looking at their heads, which appear somewhat small and lightly constructed.

retrieverman said...

The turkey vulture is one species I know well. They have a very good sense of smell, which helps them find carrion that is obscured by the dense foliage.

In West Virginia, they are very, very common. In fact, there are more of them than any corvid scavengers. If some creature dies, it will be eaten by the vultures. They don't hang around for the worst of the winter, but they do seem to wait around until deer season is over, then migrate.

During late afternoon, they return to their roosts, which are usually cliffs or isolated copses of trees. And they tend to roost in colonies.

I know of one such vulture roost nearby, which is somewhat unusual. In West Virginia, if you go driving along country highways, you'll see three steel pipe crosses, which are 30 or 40 feet high, set on top of hills, which were put up there by fundamentalists who thought that West Virginia would be spared in the Apocalypse if its hills and mountains were covered with three crosses. Well, I've noticed that a huge colony of turkey vultures has discovered it. It looks strange to see these crosses covered with turkey vultures.

I know that someone has already mentioned that these vultures are more related to storks, which is worth repeating. Convergent evolution is a wonderful thing!

I should also mention the unsavory habits of these vultures. If their nests are threatened, they and their chicks can projectile vomit to protect themselves. Indeed, I know of an acquaintance who nearly hit one with a car, and it vomited all over his windshield.

They also defecate on their legs to cool themselves, which is relatively mild compared to the projectile vomiting.

In the town of Hinckley, Ohio, a festival is held on March 15, when the vultures return in the spring (even if they return a little early). Then on that Sunday, they have a Vulture Sunday at the Hinckley Reservation.

I like watching these birds soaring in the thermals. I also see them sunning their wing along highways, usually as the sun blinks through a good rain.

But I never go near their nests-- I don't want to experience the projectile vomiting.

Neutrino Cannon said...

But I never go near their nests-- I don't want to experience the projectile vomiting.

The particularly feisty turkey vulture of my acquaintance was named "Chuck," short for "upchuck". I was advised to look out for him sneaking around to one of the perches behind and above me. Apparently he loved to vomit on people from up high.

Anonymous said...

Strangely over on the east coast they don't migrate and they are there year round but throughout the southwest they leave during the winter. It's awesome to see them migrating though because they'll group up. I've seen a group of 300 of them coming through a migration count site.

retrieverman said...

Some East Coast turkey vultures don't migrate.

I hate to use Wikipedia, but it's the best graphic that I could find. In yellow are the migratory populations of turkey vulture. I live on the western side of the Allegheny Front in West Virginia, so the local turkey vultures are migratory. I usually don't see them during the coldest months of the winter.

However, there was an exception. One winter, it was very mild. And the turkey vultures just stayed-- even beyond deer season.

Interestingly, we have a very small population of American black vultures that is sometimes seen during the summer. Of course, that species does occasionally prey on livestock, including newborn lambs and kids. They attack them when they are still wet newborn.

I don't know how common these attacks are, but it's enough to make some people get up in arms against them. Of course, they are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Teaty.

However, juvenile turkey vultures have black heads, and I worry that some of these scofflaws might start killing young turkey vultures.

Turkey vultures don't attack livestock. They are totally scavengers.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is too late for anyone to see but about 15 years ago a group of TV's stayed the winter here in Southern Wisconsin in the vicinity of Devils Lake State park, (approx 20 miles N of Madison) where they are quite numerous in summer roosting in large numbers and breeding under the large talus quartzite rocks on the slopes of the steep hills.

If you are ever near by don't miss this area, the Baraboo Hills, another geological (and ecological) marvel ~M