Saturday, September 4, 2010

Soaring with Turkey Vultures

Douglas county, Oregon: Sept. 2, 2010

Do you ever want to soar like a bird; to float in the air, tip and turn with hardly a thought; to just spread your wings and let the earth slowly slip by? Watching turkey vultures is next best. They are the masters.

It is a still summer morning, the beginning of what will be a toaster. I’m walking for exercise on a ridgeline above the valley floor where I live. In the valley to the north cars are specks and people disappear into the asphalt; the valley to the south stretches full of orchards, hayfields, and the meandering Umpqua River. I live near the edge of town, between asphalt and farms. The slopes of this ridge are steep and heavily wooded with oaks, madrones, and a few Douglas firs -- a nice surround for my town.

Turkey vultures are slow starters in the morning, usually waiting for the heat thermals to do their work. One vulture has started his morning venture. He soars at my eye level. He cuts slow circles in the quiet air with just a little tip here and a little tip there. He comes close enough for me to see it is an adult. Adults have naked cherry-bomb heads. Young birds have dark grey heads. The turkey vulture soars over the sunny parts of the ridge, where warm air already rises. The heat has barely started, yet he soars for minutes without a flap.
Oh to soar like a vulture!

Adult and immature turkey vultures.

Sept. 4, 2010: I was already writing about turkey vultures when I learned from Elizabeth Smith ( ) that today is International Vulture Appreciation Day. I never heard of such a thing! Does every day have a critter associated with it, or is this like the woodchuck that comes out every Feburary and looks at his shadow? I think this is something special.

Another thing Elizabeth commented on surprised me. She was writing about black vultures, a more southern species than our turkey vultures …. And they were dumpster diving. Our vultures are much too fastidious for that! I’ve never seen one near a dumpster or at the dump. I do see them taking advantage of road kills; and, after haying, a group gathers out in the hayfield and walks around looking for unfortunate victims.

One of their most unusual traits isn’t all that fastidious. Years ago I met “Jerry,” a turkey vulture at a raptor rehab center. I was unsettled to see that he had defecated all over his legs and that no one had cleaned him up. Then I learned it is standard procedure for turkey vultures to poop on their legs. The rehab center director told me the vulture’s juicy waste is so caustic it kills unwanted bacteria the vulture may have picked up while tearing apart old carcasses. Yum! But the more common explanation is “urohidrosis,” that the vultures do it to put moisture on their bare less and thus cool themselves through evaporation. I have no idea which is correct, but I lean towards the cooling powers since vultures do it sometime and not other times . Someone probably paid close attention as to exactly when.

Another turkey vulture oddity is that they can smell, in fact they can smell very well. Most birds can’t smell at all, but these vultures often use scent to find dinner. The books even say black vultures pay attention to turkey vultures so that they can cache in on what the turkey vultures find. Black vultures can’t smell nearly as well as turkey vultures.

Turkey vultures migrate south from here for the winter and return in early spring to nest on islolated ridges, on the ground and on rock ledges. At this time of years the youngster are flying. Once the thermals are rising it is hard to drive a mile or two without seeing a turkey vulture, or two vultures, or three. This morning I was watching 20 soaring together. They’ll be ‘ketteling-up ‘ soon. A big kettle around here is 75 to 100 birds. The birds in an area gather together in a ‘kettle,’ and head south. I’ll miss them.


  1. Elva, this is wonderful! I guess our southern black vultures are just the black sheep of the vulture family! I love to read your observations; your writing is filled with imagery that ties in so beautifully with your drawings, paintings, and photos.

  2. There is a TV roost not far from where I live. It wouldn't be summer if we didn't see them staging on the local communications tower. They will soon be gone. It seems like they TVs had a successful nesting season around here. At least I feel like I saw more juveniles than usual. L

  3. What a coincidence, I was just watching them soar yesterday, thinking how awesome it must be. I've never known much about them or ever seen them before I moved here so reading your posting was so interesting.

  4. We watched one soaring yesterday over our land - taking bets when he would have to flap his wings and then not being patient enough to keep watching THAT long. After the 'buzzards' leave AZ in autumn we usually catch up with them in San Felipe, Baha, Mexico during our Xmas vacation there. Every night thousands congregate on two big steel towers (the ones that look like small Eifel Towers). They sit tightly packed on the horizontal bars, and the ones that didn't get the top rungs look somewhat splattered in the morning.

  5. What a marvelous post about a subject dear to my heart! Thank you for marvelous sketches, photo and story!