Dark shadows overhead

Nature Nearby

Contemplating the carrion: A turkey vulture at Magruder Park. Photo courtesy Fred Seitz.
- FRED SEITZ -

– FRED SEITZ –

A casual walk along the bike path or around Magruder Park might provide a view of a large shadow soaring overhead.  Initial inclination might prompt the viewer to remark about the “dirty, disease-carrying” buzzard.  This unfortunate and incorrect stigma is sometimes applied to some common large birds in our area, who don’t deserve the disdain.

The turkey vulture and black vulture are two of six species of New World Vultures. Turkey vultures are a fairly common sight over Magruder Park (I often see them contemplating groundhog and other carcasses).  I have only seen black vultures near Paint Branch Park and Lake Artemesia. In both of these other locations, the turkey vultures appear to be more common.

The turkey vulture is easily recognized due to its bright red, bald head, which resembles a wild turkey’s, and its large size. By contrast, the black vulture is a bit smaller with a grayish-white head.  Its wingspan is about 5 feet, about a foot smaller than the turkey vulture’s. In flight, the turkey vulture displays a V-shape with its wings; the black vulture’s wings will be flatter.

Since both use thermals (rising warm air masses) to fly, they are less likely to be seen on rainy days, as the thermals do not develop in the cooler, overcast days.   Neither bird is a “buzzard” as this name was mistakenly carried over from large hawks called “buteos” and referred to as buzzards in Europe.

Both types of vulture are carrion connoisseurs and use their exceptional senses of smell and eyesight to find dead animals in wooded areas and along roadsides.  Their attraction to roadkill makes automobiles one of the major sources of their premature demise.  In addition, horned owls and some hawks may occasionally attack and kill the adult vultures, though it is more common for the vulture chicks to be taken.

If spared the ravages of autos and owls, turkey vultures may live for up to 14 years.  Both types of vultures are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918.

Part of the rationale for protection of both species is their important role in carrion disposal.  Their “clean-up” of dead animals may help reduce the spread of dangerous bacteria that may reside in the carcasses. The vultures’ hearty digestive tracts destroy the bacteria. Walking through the carcasses exposes the birds’ feet to the bacteria, but they urinate on their toes. Not only does this sterilize their feet, it also cools them on hot days.

Among their other endearing characteristics, the vultures are limited to a repertoire of hisses and grunts rather than serenading passersby, as songbirds do.  Also, if alarmed, they will vomit at the perceived threat.

Despite their challenging manners, both vultures are fairly gregarious and may share roosts on bare limbs in wooded areas.  They do not build obvious nests, but may simply scratch a space on the ground to lay one or two eggs.  Both Mom and Dad share incubation and feeding of the chicks.

Both vultures are quite picturesque when circling in the sky and are commonly seen during migration in late September and October.  Both Washington Monument State Park, near Boonsboro, and Hawk Mountain, in Pennsylvania are excellent locations for watching vultures and hawks during spring and fall migrations.

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