My current residence gives me a bird’s eye view to the world below. One of my favorite things to watch is the sunrise and listen to the flocks of birds as they race past my windows on their travels to and from their destination. This time of year as they migrate from the north, I get to experience a variety of birds. The species I anticipate seeing this time of year, more than any other, turkey vultures! Year round we have black vultures and the occasional turkey vulture, but south Florida must wait until fall to see them daily. I have lived in other parts of the country where turkey vultures signify the return of summer as they migrate back from warmer areas. So the turkey vulture with its bright red, bald head has gained a place in my heart and my memories as a symbol of seasonal change.
Why this bird? Not only are they an important part of the ecosystem as scavengers but they have several interesting adaptations. First of all, they are the only bird with a strong sense of smell. Yep, the stories of picking of baby birds and momma smelling humans on them and abandoning them, not true, because most bird species can’t smell. Note, this does not mean you should go picking up baby birds now! Back to turkey vultures – I could go on about the amazing history these birds have throughout various cultures, like how the vulture is the symbol of war in Egyptian hieroglyphs, not the eagle.
Another adaptation is they do not grow feathers on their head. This is due to the rancid, bacteria-ridden food they feast on. The lack of feathers on their head keeps them cleaner than if they had gooey parts stuck to and hanging from their feathers.
They don’t build nests but instead lay their eggs on the bare ground, preferably on rock ledges. Vultures have had to adapt to people, like many animals, and use tall buildings to lay their eggs since building ledges are the closest thing to cliffs they can find. So don’t be surprised when you are in a city center and spot a kettle of vultures above (a kettle is a group of vultures in the air). I like to think of turkey vultures as a laid-back and easy-going bird. They don’t worry about building nests, they don’t hunt for food, just sniff out something that has already died. They even go to great effort to avoid having to flap their wings too much. They will gather to find warm pockets of air, called thermals. They will soar along the thermal where the air is a little warmer, exerting as little energy as possible. Sounds kind of nice!
So the next time you see a kettle of vultures circling above, take a moment to let yourself be mesmerized by the beauty and simplicity of their ability to relax, float on thermals, and enjoy the sunshine and warmth on their face, ‘er beak.
Photo credit: Gerhard Crous