Turkey vultures spread their wings
David Hawke/Special to the Packet & Times Turkey vultures have the ability to locate dead animals by scent, whereas other birds must use sight. When a fresh meal presents itself, vultures from miles around will descend from their high altitude flights to get in line for free grub.
The mob stretched across the road, leaving no room to go around, a solid wall of dark and foreboding individuals gathered for one reason... rotting meat.
Despite my steady-yet-cautious approach, they were obviously reluctant to disperse, nervously pacing while balancing their interests between me and their prize.
To see one or two turkey vultures scavenging a road kill is somewhat common, but here were well over a dozen of the big birds and none were willing to back off just yet. It took the rapid approach of an oncoming truck to break up the gathering, the air space suddenly filled with massive wings labouring to gain altitude. The truck swooshes by, leaving a swirl of gravel dust and a now empty stretch of road, save for a pile of what was once a raccoon.
Walking closer, the smell of the sun-baked raccoon became quite strong, causing me to quick-step to the upwind side. The carcass was barely torn asunder, yet enough juicy entrails were evident to keep the vultures circling, waiting for my departure so that they may resume their breakfast.
On almost any drive through the countryside you will probably notice at least one turkey vulture soaring effortlessly across the skyscape. They are very graceful in flight, wheeling and sliding through the rising air currents, their massive wing span holding them aloft with such effectiveness that flapping is unnecessary. Their profile is that of a flattened 'V', called a dihedral, opposed to an eagle which has a flat profile; and eagles flap between soars to keep their bulk airborne, whereas vultures just soar.
The reason the vultures are up there in the first place is to find food. Their feet are not equipped with razor sharp talons, nor do they have the strong body-type as an eagle, hawk or falcon, so food must be found pre-killed. Roads and railway lines are prime areas for finding any number of hapless critters, yet the competition is fierce from crows (and now ravens) to locate and eat each morning's fresh offerings. By being so very high up, they can cover a lot of area, perhaps finding that splattered skunk or squirrel before the other scavengers can fully patrol their own territory.
Besides height, vultures have another distinct advantage over other birds, that being their sense of smell. While a hawk may have keen eyesight (about 20 times better than humans) vultures can smell rotting meat from over a mile away, even if it's under the concealment of branches and leaves. Biologists who study vultures have found that traps can be baited with just the scent of carrion, a few drops of stinky oil being as effective a lure as flashing neon lights on a human-occupied restaurant.
Up close, the turkey vulture is one ugly dude. With no feather coverage of their head, the bright red skin, bone-white beak, and clusters of crusty looking barnacles, they are the very opposite of what an attractive bird could look like. I once heard that vultures have evolved without head feathers due to their habit of going headfirst into the body cavity of the dining entree. Feathers would get sticky and later provide homes for mites; no feathers means a dip in the stream or a summer shower would wash off their faces.
But then I look at wild turkeys, also known for their featherless head attire; they don't eat in the same manner as vultures, so why are they bald too? Deep questions in need of answers (which is probably why wine and spirits flow at biologist gatherings).
As mentioned, turkey vultures are fairly easy to find on a back county drive, but it wasn't always so. As a species they are new-ish to southern Ontario, the first observation being in 1894 and by the 1950s was it considered uncommon. Only since the 1970s has it become common, but then only in areas of the province that supported high cliffs, such as the Niagara escarpment. The first confirmation of a turkey vulture nest in Quebec happened in 1986, just west of Montreal.
Atlases of breeding birds in Ontario and Quebec show very clearly that these birds are associated with agricultural areas, and that their range has been increasing steadily northwards, yet for unsettling reasons. One reason is that their southern habitats have been changed from fields and backroads to housing subdivisions and mini-malls; another is that as cottage roads become established and paved and highways become widened there are now more road kills to be found in cottage country. Kill it and they will come.
Despite their somewhat offsetting appearance, turkey vultures are an important link in the local ecosystem. Few other species are such effective scavengers, recycling nutrients up another notch in the food chain. And hey, without them our road crews would be much busier (better that they spend their time filling the potholes in all those roads... so we can drive faster... and create foraging sites for the vultures).
David Hawke is a columnist for the Packet & Times. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.