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Nature’s View: Turkey vultures: nature’s clean-up crew

Ray Harden
Ray Harden

Turkey vultures have been the topic of coffee club conversation, city council discussion, and newspaper articles last month. The city council and residents that live near the water tower want these birds to go elsewhere because of the mess they make on the sidewalk and trees. They will be leaving for the south very soon. Here is some information about these infamous birds.

The vulture is easy to identify as they fly. Their six-foot wing span forms a shallow “V” as the birds soar on the warm air currents as their wings move gently from side to side. They seldom flap their wings. The feather on their wings are widely spread allowing them to fly slowly without stalling. Vultures are always quiet as they circle; they never give off a call or have a song because they don’t have a voice box. These birds a very common sight in central Iowa during the warm months of the year.

They are often called “buzzards”, but they are in the same family as storks and flamingoes. Another species, the black vulture, is rarely seen in southern Iowa. For the past several summers I have seen turkey vultures sitting on a dilapidated barn along the Raccoon River and several years ago there was a nesting pair on the roof of the old Gardiner School building near Bouton.

In the early morning hours they will spread their wings to absorb the heat and dry the night dew off their bodies. Usually they do not take to the air until midmorning, when the warm air begins to rise.

Vultures are social birds; often a dozen of them can be seen soaring together searching for food and during the non-breeding season they will roost at night in large flocks- like on Perry’s water tower. Vultures use their keen eyesight and well developed sense of smell to find carrion, their favorite food. Sometimes they will watch and follow other scavengers, like crows, to potential feeding sites.

The longer the dead animal has been decaying the easier it is for the vulture to tear meat from the carcass because they have weak talons and beaks. Their featherless head makes them well suited for feeding inside the body of the dead animal. Scientists report the vultures have very few taste buds so they are able to eat meat that is in a high state of purification. They also have excellent resistance to the germs and toxins that are in the decaying flesh.

Gladys Black, in her book Iowa Bird Life, tells a story about a sick baby turkey vulture that she nursed back to health. She fed the baby bird meat from the carcass of a pig. She said that the riper the pig became the more the vulture ate and the stronger it became. Vultures have some behavior that is repulsive to humans. To keep their bodies cool in the summer they will eliminate their body waste on their legs. They will also vigorously vomit when threatened by another animal. This will distract the predator and lighten their body weight for a faster takeoff.

They form a mating bond that lasts their lifetime. However, they will pair again if their original mate dies. Instead of building a nest, the female will lay their two eggs on a flat surface of a cliff edge, the roof of a building, or in a tree hollow. After a month of incubation the babies hatch and then stay on the nest for ten weeks. Both parents care for the young until the babies are able to fly in early August. In late fall the young join the adult birds and fly south to their winter feeding areas. Vultures are one of the few birds that are increasing in population across their range.

Most people do not hold turkey vultures in high esteem and don’t want them nesting near their property. However, they do have a very important role in the food chain- they are nature’s “clean-up crew” for road kill.