International Vulture Awareness Day

September 5th is International Vulture Awareness Day. Why are we celebrating this sometimes reviled bird?

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

It’s to bring awareness to the Vulture family as a whole. They are not a bad bird but a very beneficial bird. They are the garbage collectors of the world. In the old days folks believed they spread vile diseases among birds, people and livestock and they also believed that Vultures took young animals from the farmyard. None of this could be farther from the truth.

The Vulture family used to be part of the larger family group Raptores, which included Hawks and Owls, but have since been separated. They also are not part of the Corvidae family which includes Crows and Ravens. They differ from Hawks and Owls in that they do not have the talons that Raptors use to capture prey. Their feet are more turkey-like with blunt claws. Their feet are generally too weak to carry a load so they’re usually found close to their food. They also can have trouble opening the tough skin of larger mammals and they must wait until a larger bird or another mammal opens the carrion first. They have an excellent sense of smell and they use that along with their excellent eyesight to locate food sources.

Here in Minnesota, we have the very familiar Turkey Vulture. For some reason, people still call Turkey Vultures Buzzards. Actually there is a bird that is a Buzzard, but it is an Old World species and it’s a Hawk. Recently Turkey Vulture populations have shifted north and populations have increased in Minnesota.

Vulture species in other parts of the world are not faring as well. The California Condor is one example, another is the King Vulture in Central America. California Condors are being reintroduced out west with some success. Condors are huge birds with wingspans up to 9 feet. Compare that with our Turkey Vulture’s wingspan of 5 1/2 feet.

Turkey Vultures have a small featherless head. In adult birds, the skin on the head is red, young birds will have a black head. They shouldn’t be confused with the slightly smaller Black Vulture which has a naked black head. Black Vultures only occur accidentally in Minnesota. (accidental meaning that there have only been 1 or 2 sightings in the last ten years). A couple years ago in the spring, a Black Vulture caused a stir when it was reported from the Hastings area.

A Turkey Vulture’s flight is characterized by a dihedral shape and their flight often appears tippy and unsteady. They can be seen at roosts with their wings spread as they sunbathe. Older Vultures have curious white warts on their faces. That’s one way to tell how old the bird is; they acquire more warts as they age.

Up here Turkey Vulture nests are hard to come by. 99% of their nests are on remote cliffs. They will also nest in trees and abandoned buildings if more suitable habitat is not available. The chicks are born with a completely white downy feathering, unlike Crows and Ravens, where the chicks are black. Their nests must be in remote areas to protect the nestlings from other scavengers. The adult birds do not bring carrion back to the nest, but instead regurgitate food to feed the young. Their stomachs contain corrosive acid which enables them to eat the sometimes putrid carrion they feed on. Turkey Vultures will use their offensive vomit as a defensive projectile when threatened.

So on that note, help us celebrate the majestic Turkey Vulture as they make their way south this weekend, just be sure to stay out of their way!

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2 Responses to International Vulture Awareness Day

  1. I am going to really miss them when they depart for the winter. Turkey Vultures are such a common and welcome sight at Hasty Brook. They are such magnificent birds.

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