Turkey vulture: master of the road-kill

Nature’s sanitary engineer may remind you of someone you know

Living in Balance
by Jenipher Appleton

What has a naked, red-skinned head, a hooked beak, and is possibly one of the ugliest things you have ever seen? No, it is not someone’s mother-in-law. It is the turkey vulture; the under-appreciated, road-kill-loving turkey vulture.
Ailsa Craig local and naturalist Hank Halliday introduced me to this species back in 1979. I had never seen one while growing up in Muskoka, although the birds are plentiful in that region today. If you see a bird that resembles a soaring eagle, with elongated fingerlike wingtips, it is most likely a turkey vulture. The species name Cathartes aura is Latin for ‘cleansing breeze.’ Go figure.
The name ‘turkey vulture’ originates from the bare-skinned red head, which resembles a wild turkey. The purpose of this ruddy nakedness is to keep the remains of decaying animals from sticking to the vulture’s head as it thrusts into its meal. Yum! Another attractive characteristic is a semicircle of whitish to greenish warts below and in front of the eyes. During hot summer weather the bird will defecate on its own feet to help keep itself cool. When harassed, a turkey vulture will throw up on whoever is bothering it. Charming!
In addition to road-kill, the turkey vulture will eat dead livestock or the dead young of herons. A flock gathers quickly after an animal dies, soaring a hundred meters up, using their keen sense of smell and sharp eyes to specifically locate the prey. Once landed, they make hissing, grunting and growling sounds as they compete for the meal. Just like home.
With a six-foot wingspan, the vulture soars efficiently on thermal air currents, holding the wings in a shallow V and rocking from side to side. It should not be mistaken for the majestic eagle, as the latter soars on horizontally outstretched wings without the rocking motion. From beneath, the wing-feathers of the turkey vulture are two-toned black and gray. Tall dead trees are a favourite perch, conjuring up scenes from old Merrie Melodies cartoons. One day in early spring, I noted a turkey vulture perched atop a stump at the north end of Hyde Park Rd. His wings were spread wide, catching the ultra violet rays of the sun. The Anhinga, a water bird seen in Florida, does the same thing to dry its wings.
It is difficult to drive any distance at all without seeing a dead raccoon, rabbit or skunk. Vultures perform a very important function by helping with the ecological clean up. Although very unattractive, it should be easy to admire the adaptability, grace and importance of this most unappreciated bird.

To contact nature writer Jenipher Appleton, send mail to nature at grandbendstrip dot com.