Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of turkey vulture © Stephen J. Lang

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Nickname: buzzard.
© Stephen J. Lang

June 2012

Creature Comforts

Watching TV.

Anita Carpenter

It's not chipper like a chickadee or regal like a bald eagle. It lacks the elegance of a snowy egret or the brilliance of a scarlet tanager. It can't sing like a winter wren or fly with the zip of a ruby-throated hummingbird. What this bird can do like no other is soar. On a 5-1/2 foot wingspan, it commands the sky with effortless grace and elegance, often staying aloft for hours, carried by the wind.

Yet when it descends to roost or to eat, we see this superb aerialist is one large, black, gawky and ugly bird. Turkey vultures are like that. Even their name suggests ugly. But turkey vultures are interesting birds with an important role in recycling and we should be grateful for their services.

As nature's scavengers, turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), dine on carrion. Even Cathartes, derived from Latin meaning scavenger, refers to its dietary lifestyle. Dressed in black, the 27-inch tall turkey vulture lacks feathers on its head. We see wrinkly, bare red skin, bulging eyes, nostrils and a fiercelooking hooked beak on a very small head. Although the small, featherless head looks ugly, it is an important adaptation for a unique lifestyle.

Because turkey vultures are carrion eaters, they eat dead, decaying and smelly animals. Imagine sticking your head inside a dead animal. Your head feathers wouldn't stay clean for very long. But if you lacked head feathers, you wouldn't need to spend hours preening feathers on a difficult location to reach.

How do turkey vultures (TVs) find their food? They soar. But how do you differentiate a soaring TV from a hawk or eagle? A soaring TV shows a black body and black feathers on the front part of the wings, giving the impression of a large black triangle. This black triangle contrasts with the rest of the wings and tail, which are silver-whitish. No other soaring bird has this wing pattern. The wingtips usually show individual feathers, which is an adaptation for maintaining balance in soaring flight. The tail is long and the head appears disproportionately small.

When soaring, TVs hold their wings up in a "v" called a dihedral. They ride thermals or air currents, often soaring for long periods without flapping. While seriously searching for food closer to the ground, the flight may seem unsteady as the birds rock from side to side as if buffeted by wind. Sometimes it appears that they almost stall out. Learning their flight characteristics also aids in identification.

While soaring may seem like such freedom to us, the birds soar to search for food with another unique twist. Turkey vultures spread themselves out over the landscape with each vulture seeming to have its own sky space but overlapping on the edges. Each vulture is looking, or rather smelling, for food. If one bird finds something that piques its interest, it circles in for a closer look. The vulture in the sky space next to it notices the descent and follows in. Soon a ripple effect follows through the sky and more and more vultures circle in. With a potential meal in sight, the incoming vultures are very wary when approaching a dead animal. Eventually they overcome their hesitation, come in and dine on the delectable meal.

This feeding strategy makes sense. Since the presence of carrion is unpredictable, more vultures searching a larger area increases the chances of finding something. So, in a way, it's a group effort for finding food.

Turkey vultures roost in colonies. In late evening they drift in when the wind subsides. In the morning, they often sit with wings outstretched. They may be warming themselves or drying feathers from the night's dampness. As soon as the temperature rises and daytime thermals begin, TVs clumsily jump off their perches and with a few slow, heavy wingbeats become airborne. They circle to gain altitude and another day of soaring begins.

Turkey vultures return to Wisconsin in the spring. Look for them soaring high in the sky as they drift northward. They do nest in the state but it's easier to see a soaring TV than to find a nesting pair. Many non-breeding TVs also spend summer in Wisconsin.

I've seen thousands of turkey vultures and each time I observe one, I stop and watch and marvel as it gracefully soars through the heavens. These birds have such freedom in the sky. Despite its outward appearance, it really is a bird of beauty. I admire its ability to eat food most of us wouldn't look at twice. I thank them for cleaning up the landscape. Turkey vultures are an integral part of the circle of life and another example of nature's recyclers at work. Without them, we might be knee deep in well, you get the picture.

Anita Carpenter marks the comings and goings of birds, bugs and plants year-round from her home in Oshkosh.