Despite unsavory reputation, vultures provide important function

I’ve always believed that all birds make good neighbors, although I will admit it’s easier to welcome certain birds than it is others.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    Black vultures perch together in a tall tree.

Gene Sturgeon, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, shared a Christmas Day bird observation he made. He wrote that a distant tree (maybe 250 yards from the Sturgeon home) held three large vultures. The birds were perched high in the tree, with their wings outstretched as if they were drying their wings.

“I thought initially they may be cormorants, but another was flying around the neighborhood and looked very much like a vulture,” he wrote. “I couldn’t tell for sure if they were turkey or black vultures, but my son said he saw turkey red heads.”

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A turkey vulture lands in a pasture.

Curious about the behavior of the vultures, Gene also had a question. “Why would several vultures be drying their wings?” He asked in his email. “I think they are not water birds, and I don’t remember ever seeing vultures in the top of a tree. Perhaps migrating?”

In my response to his email, I told Gene that he had hit on the reason the vultures are there in his neighborhood. The tall tree offer them a perfect perching spot. Sometimes they will spread their wings out in that pose to soak up sunshine. The warmth from the sun’s rays sort of helps re-charge them. By maximizing the surface area of their bodies, morning sunshine can more easily warm them and get them ready to start the day. Basically, vultures are perfect examples of “green” energy in action.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                                                 A black vulture spreads its wings to bask in the warm sunshine.

The pose described by Gene is actually one I have seen from time to time in other larger raptors. I’ve seen bald eagles perched with that sort of pose. I also informed Gene that his son was right. Turkey vultures have the red heads, and black vultures have black. The heads of both vultures are bare of feathers, which would quickly become soiled from the habit of these birds of pushing their heads into the carcasses of dead animals when feeding.

Gene wasn’t the only person who has sent me an email recently on the subject of vultures. Bettie Hite emailed with some questions she and her husband, Jim, have about vultures in their neighborhood along King College Road in Bristol.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Turkey vultures are one of the few birds with a well developed sense of smell.

“You’ve probably already heard about this, but we have a huge flock of vultures gathering every evening in the trees around the intersection of Middlebrook, Graystone, The Reserve and the golf course on King College Road,” Bettie wrote in her email. “They begin flying in around 4 p.m. and before dark the trees are full of them.”

On the morning of Dec. 14, Bettie informed she counted 32 vultures in a maple tree on Carmack Circle (in Graystone) and six more vultures on the rooftop next to the tree. She noted that the vultures dispersed soon after that.

“There must be dozens of them roosting in the trees at night,” she wrote in her email. “Where are they coming from? Where are they finding enough food for so many of them? Why OUR neighborhood?”

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service              The red head of an adult turkey vulture distinguishes it from adult black vultures.

Vultures are year-round residents in the region, and they are sociable birds that tend to form flocks. They are also very efficient birds, and they can soar lazily in the sky until they find something to eat. This time of year, vultures scavenge a lot of the remains of deer dressed and left behind in the woods by hunters, but they also are quite skillful at making use of roadkill. They can fly long distances to look for food without actually depleting energy reserves.

For the most part, they’re harmless. If dozens grow to hundreds, the resulting mess at the roost could conceivably be a health concern. Why have they chosen to roost in the neighborhood where Bettie and her husband reside? That’s more difficult to answer, but I suspect that the trees in the neighborhood are extremely attractive to this particular flock of vultures.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                      A turkey vulture perches quietly on a tree branch.

Turkey vultures are probably more common than black vultures, but I have seen both turkey and black vultures around Bristol. They’re never going to win any beauty contests, but vultures do actually provide a very useful function in the environment. When it comes to finding carrion, turkey vultures also have an advantage over black vultures. Turkey vultures are one of the few birds with a highly developed sense of smell, which helps them identify the wafting scent of decaying roadkill from long distances.

As surprising as it may seem, some American towns actually stage annual vulture festivals. For instance, Wenonah, New Jersey, holds an annual East Coast Vulture Festival every March. The Kern River Nature Preserve in California hosts a Fall Turkey Vulture Festival every September. Makanda, Illinois, is also considering holding a Vulture Fest this October.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                 A trio of turkey vultures share perches in a large tree.

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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