Turkey vultures rule the roost, helps our ecosystem

Most of us have a favorite species of bird based on their song, color or habits. There is a fascinating bird that will never win a beauty contest, yet it plays an important role in our environment.

Many ‘kettles’ or groups of flying turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) arrive every year around March 15 to Hinkley, Ohio, completing their annual migration, where tourists gather to watch them fly in from South America and land at Buzzard Roost.

They range from South Canada to South America and are often seen in our area, in corn fields and open areas, rather than wooded enclosed areas.

Often called ‘buzzards’, their name ‘vulture’ originates from their dark plumage and bald, featherless red head. The word vulture, according to the University of Michigan, may come from the Latin word ‘vellare,’ meaning ‘to pluck or tear,’ and their scientific name means ‘golden purifier or cleanser.’

Turkey vultures do not kill their food but rather eat leftover carrion.

Amazingly, turkey vultures can eat from carcasses that have organisms such as bacteria and botulism and not be affected, because their guts neutralize their acidic digestive juices. Therefore, they reduce the number of toxic pathogens that would adversely affect other birds and animals.

With a body of about 30 inches in length and a wingspan of six feet, they are often mistaken for a hawk or eagle when flying on thermals or air drafts, but by observing them closely, a clear identification is how they hold their wings in a ‘V’ formation, called dihedral, for stability, as they tip back and forth.

Weighing less than four pounds, their talons lack the strength of hawks and eagles and without a voice box, turkey vultures only produce hisses and grunts.

Getting close to a turkey vulture is not recommended, yet it would be a memorable experience since they smell rancid, mainly because of their diet. During hot weather, they even excrete urine on their legs, called urohydrosis, to cool down (they don’t sweat!). When a predator closes in, they will defend themselves with projectile vomiting as much as 10 feet away.

These scavengers are our recyclers as they consume leftover carcasses, keeping decaying bacteria in check. A keen sense of smell, they can see food sources easily and will spit up pellets of indigestible bones and fur.

Their bald red heads keep their heads free of food and therefore clean, as they insert their heads into a carcass cavity.

Hopping around in a circle with their wings spread, courtship includes ‘follow flights’ as the male leads a female following in the air. Males and females resemble each other and usually remain together during breeding and over winter months.

Laying one to three eggs from March through June in a ground depression, in caves, logs or under bushes and incubation lasts 30 to 40 days. Both parents feed the chicks regurgitated food. After 9 to 10 weeks the parents encourage independence as they learn to fly and feed themselves.

With a stable population, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Although unappreciated and sometimes unpopular, the turkey vulture is a valuable recycler of our ecosystem.

For pictures and more of this bird, go to http://go.osu.edu/turkeyvulture

Kane Shipka is an Ohio State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Mahoning County.


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