Another bird has returned from its wintering grounds – the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Although the turkey vulture looks black from a distance, it is actually dark brown with a featherless red head and a pale bill. The undersides of the flight feathers (those on the trailing edge of an open wing) are a pale brown giving the vulture a two-toned appearance from below. They often soar overhead in small groups.
Turkey vultures, colloquially called buzzards, can be found throughout the New World except in the Arctic. They are year-long residents of the southern tier of states, Central and South America. Some populations migrate as far as northern Canada in the summer.
A carrion eater with a well-developed sense of smell, the turkey vulture finds carcasses primarily by odor. They can detect odors as dilute as a few parts per trillion. (That boggles my mind!) Although turkey vultures eat mostly mammals, they will eat the dead meat of reptiles, other birds, fish and amphibians. If the skin of a dead animal is too tough or thick to pierce with their beaks, turkey vultures will wait until putrefaction has softened the hide and then begin to scavenge the carcass. Their immune systems are excellent because vultures do not get botulism, cholera, anthrax or salmonella from their rotten diet. Interestingly, although several vultures will collect around a dead animal, only one eats at a time while the others wait their turn. I am not certain how the feeding order is determined.
Turkey vultures are very common along roadsides (think roadkill), and open farmland and rangeland. Dumps and landfills also provide another food source.
Interesting fact: When threatened, turkey vultures will vomit their strong stomach acids onto the menace. I do not even want to think of the burns its stomach acid could cause.
Another interesting fact: A turkey vulture will eat an entire dead skunk but leave the scent glands. Smart bird!
I apologize to my regular followers since I did mention some of this information last December when I wrote about discovering how near to us turkey vultures actually winter. This vulture was soaring above Crystal Lake (Shasta County CA). Note the damaged flight feathers on the one wing.