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Misunderstood Omen of Doom: The Turkey Vulture

May 3, 2013

Turkey Vultures get a bad rap. They are associated with death, doom and rot in popular culture. The camera focuses on the cowboy desperately looking for water in the desert and then zooms in on a waiting vulture – it certainly does not bode well for our hero! While this association is not totally unwarranted, Turkey Vultures are an essential part of the “clean up squad” and have a beauty all their own.  That red, featherless head is quite intriguing if you look closely, and quite practical.  It is difficult for birds to preen their heads.  If you stick your head into dead carcasses, it is probably best to dispense with feathers on your head.

Drying wings in the sun

Drying wings in the sun

Their large wings allow them to fly up on rising convection winds and then soar over the landscape, looking for and smelling dead animals. The classic “V” shaped profile of the vulture distinguishes it from the profile of a soaring eagle. Vultures seem to spend a lot of time drying those large wings out in the sun.

Perched near a road-killed elk.  There were 3 young vultures nearby.

Perched near a road-killed elk. There were 3 young vultures nearby.

While I was doing research in Creston Valley Wildlife Management Area, I watched a pair of Eastern Kingbirds mobbing a Turkey Vulture perched near their nest. The vulture did not find the nest, but I am sure it was not above gulping down three big nestlings! So, perhaps these carrion-eaters are not above opportunistic snacks of live food.

The classic flight profile of a Turkey Vulture

The classic flight profile of a Turkey Vulture

Perched near a dead elk dumped in the bush

Perched near a dead elk dumped in the bush

Keeping an eye out for feeding opportunities

Keeping an eye out for feeding opportunities

I hope I have piqued your curiosity about these birds. Turkey Vultures flock to the dead elk and deer dumped in the bush around here. Watching vultures tear enthusiastically at a dead animal can be a bit disquieting. But where there are vultures, there is usually at least one Bald Eagle sharing in the feast. And we don’t disparage that noble beast, do we?

all photos and writing copyright Joanne Siderius, 2013.

5 Comments
  1. Wow, cool photos! One morning, I saw a cluster of Turkey Vultures enjoying their roadside breakfast, they were huge!

  2. I am following a turkey vulture nest in my backyard. You are so right that they are misunderstood.

  3. Turkey vultures really got the short stick on names 😦 Thanks for introducing me to the beauty that lies beneath.

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