Peggy Keener: Turkey vulture tutorial 101

Published 5:39 pm Friday, December 10, 2021

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Since my Thanksgiving column, I have not been able to get turkey vultures off my mind. They’re not a pleasant thought, you know, and I’m not altogether happy about it. Here is my issue. I feel there is much more about them that I am compelled to share with you.

To begin, just in case you are not familiar with this bird, here’s a description: the turkey vulture is a large soaring bird with a bald red head, white bill, large brown-blackish body and yellow feet. (Sorta like a Lady Gaga costume.)

Their genus name is Cathartes which means “cleanser”. They’re so named because that’s what they do: clean up rotten critters. (In more dignified terms, this would be equivalent to a modern day Roomba.)

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Their wingspan goes all the way up to seven feet. They weigh about 4.5 lbs. and grow as long as 32”. They’re the kind of Simon Legree birds that bully and push other birds around, each one believing he is Marlon Brando on the waterfront. And this is important: not a single turkey vulture in the history of turkey vultures has ever taken a Dale Carnegie course.

I suppose we should be grateful to turkey vultures because they keep our world clean. After all, they gobble up a wide variety of carrion, from small mammals to dead cows. I, for one, feel great—actually immense!—gratitude to these birds because I have never yet found a dead cow in my yard.

Anyone who has observed vultures high up in the trees will note that they like nothing better than to spread their wings … and then hold them in place for world without end. There is actually a name for this stance: the horaltic pose. Nobody knows for certain why they do this, but vulture aficionados feel it is to dry their wings, warm their bodies and bake off trapped bacteria. I suppose we folks could learn from this. Especially those of us who exercise a lot and could use some airing out in our fusty areas. (But, come on now. Is it really necessary that we do this up in a tree?)

Vultures have some other habits that we of the genus “people” might find offensive. This does not give us the right to judge, however, because these behaviors serve the vultures very well. For starters, there’s their hot feet. During sweltering weather, the birds defecate on their feet. Sweet! The reason you ask? Well, in the absence of simply being able to remove their shoes, vomiting on their feet cools them off. Makes sense, right?

There is also that thing about their digestive juices. Would you believe that those secretions kill bacteria? This explains why vultures don’t get sick after eating rotten meat. (But, then you probably already knew that.) Furthermore, by defecating on their feet it may additionally work as an antiseptic wash. (I don’t suppose they could be coaxed into carrying around tiny bottles of peroxide instead.)

They have another offensive habit, as well. (I mean, let’s face it, when you have a name like “vulture,” aren’t you entitled to as many offensive habits as you desire?) They like to vomit. In public. They can even do this while soaring through the air. Multi-taskers!

Vomiting is their main method of self defense. (Yes, yes, I can see that.) When a vulture is bothered or harassed, it will throw up on the harasser. Even little baby vulturettes vomit on other animals. (I actually think I know some humanoid babies who do the same thing.) Vomiting serves turkey vultures very well as it is a very effective predator repellent. (You don’t say.)

Turkey vultures are not homemakers. They do not build nests. Instead they lay their eggs directly on the ground, in caves, under fallen trees, in hollow logs and even in abandoned buildings. (This would be one major reason why Minnesota Snowbirds should not stay away from home for too long.)

In case you have not had a good close up look at a vulture, you will not know that they have extra large nostrils. This makes them sensitive to minute amounts of ethyl mercaptan … or that tempting, luscious smell of carrion.

You have probably been asking yourself why their heads are so vibrantly crimson? No one knows for sure. It could be as simple as people males preferring blonds while vulture males prefer redheads. But probably not.

Furthermore, naturalists will go so far as to say that even after a hearty meal of, say, dead cow, their bald craniums remain carrion-free and clean. Like a slick bib, dinner just slides off their faces.

The vibrant red head does not come all at once. Vultures have to wait until adulthood. In the meantime, youngsters have dark gray noggins. From that knowledge we may perhaps assume that the red heads have something to do with mating. Like it’s a signal that they’re ripe and ready to go. Party time!

So now you see what utterly fascinating creatures the vultures are. There is no end to their entertainment value. Along Turtle Creek, where we live, there are great numbers of these ishy birds. They hold daily conventions during which their beady, ravenous eyes focus in on Glen and me with a creepy intensity.

Living in fear, as we are, we’ve discussed this at great length. Our conclusion: we’re really, really glad we’re not dead cows.