Monday, March 26, 2018

Vultures: Love 'em or Not!

We have two vultures in eastern US: black and turkey. The turkey vulture is Catharsis aura which in the Greek and Latin means something along the lines of changing of things and breeze or air. The black vulture is Coragyps atratus which is roughly a “raven-black”-bird dressed for mourning which seems an awful lot of words that describe the same thing. Both feed off carrion where ever carrion is conveniently found. During this time of year they like to cruise along the shores of the lakes and streams. We have seen them form into mixed groups but also at strange time nearly all of one or the other.

When vultures form up in the sky in those big groups, it is a kettle. They’re searching for odor of carrion and you see they move on, too, rather than just circle in one spot forever. Like everything other living thing in the world they need to eat and you’d think in this day and age of all these metropolitan areas food would be scarce but apparently not. On a good day of spying vultures you don’t count them in the tens. You start with twenties or more. And then we’ve been out on counts and seen none! Do not dismiss a kettle. At the very top of the kettle might easily be a hawk. By taking a moment to look over several individuals is the best way to begin to easily identify each species.

What is more amazing is to watch them feed. They are not too polite but not too pushy. They seem to realize everyone has to eat but of course each individual must first take care of its own survival. There is a restriction on table manners. The mad frenzy means one gets a good bite and is then forced out of the mash pit but then that one will push its way back in. The result is not birds sitting on the wire but this constant movement inward to grab a bit and then step back. Nobody is shy (otherwise you won’t get fed) but they do move each aside and get moved aside. I haven’t noticed vultures biting each other to warn them off like I image cats and hyenas might do.

Think of them like sharks, drawn towards the meal of least resistance where dead is about as least resistant as you can get. Which should remind us that vultures do not circle live food as if waiting for death as they seem to do in all the old westerns.

In the picture this turkey vulture is coming into feed on the carcass on its left. What you don’t see are two other TVs on the other side of the carcass. Notice the red head and the lightness of the flight feathers. These are two basic easily identifiable traits. The black vulture is very black without the lightness in the feathers and a grey head. They do have enough sense to get out of the way of cars but I would never dare to try and interrupt a feeding frenzy with my body. Another differentiation is the turkey vulture has a slight V-shaped wing spread and the black has a flat wing span.

Notice this individual is looking at the carcass. I imagine in nature you don’t let food out of your sight but at the same time all species have to be aware of surroundings and predators. There aren’t a lot of other predators on the hunt for vultures but it only takes maybe a moment of carelessness.

Both vultures are not really good fliers. Despite all that soaring, they spend a lot of energy maintaining altitude on the look out for that next meal. They are also slow to take off which means many has met their end on the interstates meeting the front end of a tractor-trailer rig. I had one almost climb in through the windshield. I swear I could sense his talons scrapping over the roof the car. It was that close.


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