Wildlife Wednesday 03/13/24

Happy #WildlifeWednesday!

You may have noticed more large dark birds circling and soaring in the sky overhead lately. While some Turkey Vultures stay in Ohio all year, most migrate for the winter, traveling to the southern USA and even as far as South America. While often associated with death and decay, the Turkey Vulture is a harbinger of spring!

A valuable member of nature’s cleanup crew, vultures eat carrion, which they locate using their sense of smell. Their stomachs are extremely acidic, which allows them to digest carasses tainted with rabies, anthrax, and tuberculosis. Without vultures, much more disease would spread from rotting dead animals.

Their red bald heads resembling that of a male Wild Turkey gave them the first part of their common name, while the word “vulture” comes from Latin, meaning to tear, referring to the bird’s scavenging feeding method. Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, translates to “golden purifier” or “golden breeze.” That’s a bit more appealing.

The head is featherless to prevent buildup of guts, entrails, maggots, and other distasteful things that might accumulate while feeding face-first in carcasses. Lacking the ability to sweat, when a vulture gets too hot, it defecates on its own legs, using evaporation of the water in the feces and urates as a cooling down strategy. Its primary means of defense is to projectile vomit foul-smelling, semi-digested rancid meat, an effective deterrent to pretty much all predators. Turkey Vultures lack a syrinx, the vocal organ present in most birds, so they are unable to call or sing, instead communicating with hisses and grunts. 

While all of the previous paragraph may sound disgusting, Turkey Vultures are relatively clean, gentle, and social creatures. They can often be seen standing nobly in the horaltic pose, perched high with their enormous wings spread wide, glowing in the sunshine. Not only does this stance look really cool, the vulture is using the heat of the sun to bake off ectoparasites and bacteria in its feathers.

Turkey Vultures are very social. They migrate in flocks that can number into the thousands and roost together at night in large communal groups, sometimes sharing a roosting space with Black Vultures as well. A group of perched vultures is referred to as a “committee” and while flying a “kettle.” When they are feeding together at a carcass the collective is called a “wake.”

Turkey Vultures are traditionally said to return to Ohio (specifically Hinckley, Ohio) on Buzzard Day, which falls on March 15 each year. While we know that some never leave the state and some arrive earlier or later, the date still serves as an annual celebration of the Turkey Vulture and arrival of spring!

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