Turkey Vulture


(This 786th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on April 23, 2006.)


I had an unusual experience early one morning several years ago. It happened when I was hiking alone along a section of the Canadian Bruce Trail about 50 miles northwest of Toronto.


The Bruce Trail follows the escarpment over which Niagara Falls flows. What remains of that cliff extends west around Hamilton, then turns north across country up to the Bruce Peninsula. The trail runs up and down the steep slope but where I was walking it passed through a wooded area along the top near the edge of a sharp drop.


Suddenly all around me the forest came alive. A loud rustling noise arose from the undergrowth. It sounded as though large animals or people were moving all around me. I could see only indistinct shapes and the noise kept increasing. Whatever caused the sound seemed to be closing in on me. I could think of no possible source and, quite frankly, I was frightened.


Finally the rustling decreased a bit and I ventured forward. I came to a clear area, which exposed the cliff edge, and I immediately discovered what had scared me. I had come upon a roost of more than a dozen turkey vultures. Instead of spending the night in trees, they had slept on the ground. What had frightened me was the disturbed birds crashing through the undergrowth to get to the drop off in order to leap out and sail away.


As I watched the last of the big buzzards take off, the tension finally drained from my body.


Setting aside the frightening aspects of my experience, I thought about what I had seen. I decided that I had observed two quite different aspects of this remarkable species.


Sailing overhead the turkey vulture is, I believe, among the most attractive of birds. You can identify them at great distance by their large size -- their wingspread is 5 1/2 to 6 feet -- and the way they hold their broad wings upswept in a dihedral. They are so aerodynamically well structured that they rarely flap those wings; rather, they are content to soar in circles buoyed only by fickle air currents. That morning I watched several of them, some below where I stood, sailing effortlessly on early morning thermals rising into the cool air from the warmer ground.


At first sight turkey vultures appear all black but, when they pass overhead, you notice that only the body and forewings are dark, the rest of the feathers gray with the tips of the primaries silver.


Even when you see these birds perched in the distance they appear massive and when they hold out their wings, as they often do apparently to dry their feathers, this mass gives them a distinguished appearance.


Turkey Vulture

Photo courtesy of Robert Bernstein and The Turkey Vulture Society

 Yet up close there is a striking contrast. Now these are surely among the ugliest of birds. Their heads are bare of feathers and colored the red of raw meat. There are even black areas near their eyes that give the meat a spoiled appearance. And in front of this is a cruel beak.


Now that big body appears disproportionately large and hulking. The overall effect is similar to a tiny child wearing a parent's overcoat.


It is appropriate that I write about turkey vultures at this time. They have become the commonest raptor migrating through this region. This year over 8,000 have already been recorded at the Hamburg hawkwatch site. (To place that number in perspective, the total number of raptors observed there has been just over 10,800.)


Regional Buffalo Ornithological Society counts also indicate how vulture numbers have increased. Current annual numbers average over ten times those recorded before 1970.


I have talked with a number of birders about why this is happening. One suggested that these birds may be extending their range north as our weather moderates. That may well be true, but I suspect another reason and I will be interested in responses from farmers about my guess. As I understand it, because of the possibility of disease spread, rendering companies no longer collect dead animals from farms. That means that carcasses are often left out longer before burial providing a smorgasbord for vultures.-- Gerry Rising