Nature’s Clean-Up Service: Appreciating the Turkey Vulture
Roger Tory Peterson is one of our most revered ornithologists and for decades his “Field Guide to the Birds” has been the most sought-after book on bird identification. Peterson knows birds, and his vulture quote shares two traits of our region’s vultures – they do clean up garbage (roadkill and carrion) and yet they are beautiful as they soar through the sky.
We have two species of vultures in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor — the turkey vulture and the black vulture, though the latter is an occasional visitor. Turkey vultures are a common sight around here, and I enjoy seeing them soaring in the sky on most days while driving to work on Interstate 395.
I don’t recall seeing turkey vultures when I was a kid growing up in the suburban Boston area. It wasn’t until I moved to the more rural areas of northeast Connecticut that I encountered this interesting bird. Their size and wingspan alone make them hard to miss.
According to my Peterson guide, vultures are in the family Cathartidae. “Blackish eaglelike birds often seen soaring high in wide circles. Their naked heads are relatively smaller than those of hawks and eagles. Often incorrectly called buzzards.”
Turkey vultures are not native to New England but began expanding their range from the south to north over the past 60 years. They are now widespread and a common breeder as far north as southern Canada.
Black vultures have also been expanding their range from south to north and are becoming more numerous in Connecticut, although still considered rare and uncommon. They mostly occur in the western part of the state.
Vultures are scavengers, and both species feed mostly on carrion (dead animals) and garbage. They will catch small animals and nestlings and sometimes will eat fruits and vegetables.
They are nature’s cleaning service and have the unique ability to consume rotting and infected meat without ill effects. By consuming dead carcasses from roadkill or at dumps they are removing possible bacteria and disease from the environment.
Adult turkey vultures have red heads, white bills and brown legs. Their red heads, similar to wild turkeys, is how they get their name. Juvenile heads and bills are dark, and legs are paler in color. They are up to 27 inches long with a wingspan of almost six feet (69 inches) and long tails.
Black vultures are smaller in size, though heavier in body with a length of 25 inches and a wingspan of less than five feet (57 inches). They also have a shorter tail than the turkey vulture. Turkey vulture wings have silvery colored flight feathers while the black vulture has solid black flight feathers with a white color to their outer primary feathers or wing tips.
The vulture’s featherless head is an important feature. Their diet of dead carcasses, some of which have been rotting for quite some time, does not get stuck or accumulate in their feathers. This helps prevent the spread of bacteria and disease to the birds.
Riding the thermals and wind high above the ground is how turkey vultures locate food. It is their combined keen sense of smell and sight that alerts them to carrion. They are frequently seen in groups and when one bird descends to feed the others soon follow.
Depending on the size of the dead animal, a large number of vultures can be seen feeding on one source. It is common to see them along roadsides and highways in groups of five or more “cleaning-up” the roadkill.
Turkey vultures lay their eggs directly on the ground and nest on rock ledges, in caves or hollowed out stumps. The female will typically lay two eggs with hatching occurring by 38 days. The young feed on food that has been regurgitated by the adults. In 10 to 12 weeks the young are ready to fledge and leave the nest.
Turkey vultures are often seen in spiraling flocks, especially during migration and they are easy to identify with their wings held in a shallow V shape. They also tend to rock side to side with little flapping of their wings.
Vultures will roost together in large gatherings and sometimes rise together as a group to reach the thermals in search of food. One early morning I saw a dozen or more roosting on fence posts that lined a pasture in Woodstock. It was a bit creepy to see them all together lined up and staring me down. They were waiting for the sun to warm the air before flying off.
For the past few summers I have seen a large flock of turkey vultures in Willimantic. TLGV sets up an information booth for the Willimantic 3rd Thursday Street Festival and during warm evenings I have seen 40 or more circling up and up from the tree-lined hills above the town and the neighborhood of Eastern Connecticut State College.
Turkey vultures are here to stay, and we should be thankful for their presence in our region, their resilient ability to devour carrion and the beneficial role they play keeping our natural world “cleaned-up.”
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me and others as we enjoy, care for and pass on this place we, and the turkey vultures, call home.
Information for this column was gleaned from The Peterson Field Guide to Birds, CT Wildlife Magazine, and the National Geographic Field Guide to North American Birds.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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