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On The Beauty Of Turkey Vultures

On The Beauty Of Turkey Vultures
by Bernard Murphy on 09-09-2015 at 12:00 pm

Now and again I like to switch from technical topics and write about something good for the soul. I’m involved with a wildlife rescue organization; we take orphaned and injured birds (generally found by members of the public), nurse them back to health and release them back into the wild. We have permits all the way up to the federal level, we get regular training, we’re a 501(c)(3) charity – it’s quite an operation.

Among the more interesting birds we’ve had recently were three turkey vultures. I’m willing to bet if you think about vultures at all, you think “ugly, eat dead stuff, yuck”. But there’s a lot more to them than that. The first of the three was an adult with fractures in the collarbone (coracoid) area, possibly flew into a car or maybe he hit a tree. This one was spotted out in the wilds by a couple of horseback riders. Then there was a juvenile, in generally good health but skinny and wandering around by the side of the road – called in by the Sheriff. Finally, we got a baby, found under a homeowner’s deck. Both the baby and the juvenile were dehydrated and were probably straying from home looking for a source of water (that darned drought).

You probably haven’t seen a baby turkey vulture before. They’re pretty cute – all white fluff with a black face.

They instinctively know they should threaten when approached but the execution is a little less than terrifying. This kid would stamp its feet and charge at us but – like any toddler learning to walk – would immediately fall flat on its face.

Once they had a plentiful supply of food and water both the baby and the juvenile recovered quickly. The adult also recovered but more slowly as broken bones knitted and he regained strength in flight muscles. Here are the three of them in a flight cage, the juvenile up top, the adult lower down and the growing baby at the bottom.

The adult was not happy that he wasn’t strong enough to fly to the top perch; this put him lower in the hierarchy than the juvenile and he was not about to be subservient to a teenager. As soon as he could make it to the top, they got into it. In a lot of species, dominance battles can be quite violent, but these guys were more civilized. They started with chest-butting; when that wasn’t going anywhere the adult switched tactics. Vultures indicate submissiveness by not making eye-contact with the leader, typically by hanging their heads when the boss is around. The adult realized if the pretender wouldn’t voluntarily look down, he could force the issue by standing on his head. Since vultures are fairly hefty birds the juvenile lost to simple mechanics. After a few rounds of this, he evidently concluded that a demotion was preferable to a vulture hat.

Vultures are very social birds. You commonly see large groups roosted in trees or power pylons, or circling an area looking for good eats. They’re not so keen on us though. An adult’s favored response to a perceived threat (a human approaching for example) is to vomit, which is a disgusting but very effective way of discouraging any would-be attacker, although the principal purpose seems to be to shed weight so they can take off quickly. Whenever we had to handle these three we were always very careful to wait until they had fully digested their previous meal. Not that they don’t still try to gross us out, like this guy.

After they all recovered we released the birds at a nearby park. Releases are the best part of what we do, so we get plenty of help, in this case from volunteers and a couple of park rangers. The adult flew straight to a tree where maybe 30 other vultures were already roosting, but the baby (now grown) and the juvenile took off and soared over the reservoir, just enjoying the thrill of flying free and catching thermals. Seeing that made it all worthwhile.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you feel you learned a little about vultures. Maybe these amazing birds can also offer something you can take back to your regular job. A group of vultures gathered together in a roost is often called a committee. When they’re feeding together, they’re called a wake. So next time you’re in a committee meeting and you feel you’re surrounded by vultures, you’ll know why. When lunch is brought in, you can share how much you’re enjoying the wake (I remember some working lunches that felt that way). And while I wouldn’t recommend vomiting as a debate tactic, when a committee member gets a little too aggressive, you can always try standing on their head.

More articles by Bernard…

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