Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Turkey vultures at work; 'sad ending' from crows

STACEY COLE July 12. 2013 8:37PM

In order to enjoy bird behavior, you don't always have to dress quietly in dull clothing, hang a pair of heavy binoculars around your neck, and strike out to find a particular bird habitat. In a June 10 letter, one of our Chester readers described the following experience:

"In a recent column you wrote about turkey vultures. I just had an opportunity to see them at work. It was one of the first warm days this spring, and I had just put up the big umbrella on the patio and sat down under it to enjoy the day. If I had not been leaning back looking at the beautiful, blue, cloudless sky, I'm sure I would have missed this encounter.

"Out of the blue came rocketing down a very large, dark bird. A hawk, I thought. It quickly went out of sight behind my house. A short bit later, this bird flew up again, this time toward our barn. I could see that it had something in its talons that looked like a small animal with a long limb dangling down. It looked like a turkey vulture with possibly a rabbit or cat in its possession. It disappeared behind the barn. As I was pondering all of this, I saw a flock of vultures circling in the sky as if by magic. They appeared so suddenly. Their route took them behind my barn.

"At that point I just had to follow them to see what was happening. A lone pine tree among the sugar maples by the wall was host to all of those birds. They looked huge and ungainly clinging to the branches of the pine which was groaning under their weight. In my excitement, I can only estimate the number, but I would say, about a dozen birds congregated there. They were huge!

"Out came the 'Birds of America,' my bird bible which told me that there are turkey vultures in the sky at all times, endlessly soaring for hours on end, too high to be seen in vast circles about a mile or two apart. They can see the ground easily and are searching for prey but also watching each other. They hunt communally so when they see one of their number with a catch they come from all over to partake in the feast. I believe that is what I was seeing. What a thrill!"

Our reader's reference, "Birds of America," was published by Garden City in 1936. It was written by several editors including two of my old-time favorites, John Burroughs and Edward Howe Forbush. T. Gilbert Pearson was the senior editor. My copy is well worn. Grandfather Cole gave it to me in 1937. I find it still a great reference.

The letter continued: "One early morning some time ago, I went out to check the progress of the vegetable garden. When I got to the bean patch I was dismayed to find that the just emerged baby bean sprouts were pulled up and lying on the ground shrivelling up. I had seen a family of crows rollicking in the hayfield and suspected that it was some of their mischief. We re-planted the beans. It happened again, but I had not seen the crows near the garden. In search of a plan of action, my husband told me that in olden times farmers would shoot a crow and hang it over the garden as a warning to keep the crows away. Well, we would never shoot a crow as we loved their antics and were happy to see them carry out their lives in our field. Hearing their lone sentinel send out a caw to alert their group that we were coming for our walk to the pond made us chuckle. They had nothing to fear from us."We found a length of black, shinny fabric in the attic and researched the size of a crow from beak to tip of its tail and made a pattern out of newspaper resembling the outline of a crow and placed it on the folded fabric making two pieces that I hand sewed together and stuffed with cotton batting. I left the neck portion fairly loose and floppy so that when I hung it by the neck it realistically draped into a believable dead crow carcass dangling above the bean patch. I felt really clever! The bird book told me that crows do recognize each other even from a long distance. Now to wait and see what happens.

"The next morning the crows flew over the garden, and settled down on a small rise in the field above the garden. They formed a circle and stiffly walked around looking at each other. I swear they were counting themselves. Which of them was dead and hanging in the garden?

"After a while they flew away. Sad ending to my story. We never saw that family again. I felt so badly as that was a great loss to us. I still look longingly for them to return. Once in a while I do see a crow but it doesn't stay. This was about the time there was the first talk about West Nile Disease.

"Our field was always full of birds, but little by little they are disappearing. Where we used to have dozens of red-wings, only a few now. Once 5-6 bobolinks nesting, now but one."

Similar situation here at the farm. So sad!

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.

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