Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Clumsy on ground, turkey vulture is an aerial wizard

October 11. 2013 9:50PM

I've heard it said that a camel, being such a strange looking mammal, must have been created by a committee.

After reading a Sept. 14 letter from one of our Milford readers, perhaps the same could be said of a turkey vulture.

The letter read in part: "I am so excited by a sighting yesterday that I have to tell you about it. I saw six turkey vultures in the middle of the road dining; and another bird on the wing soaring above (not sure if it was another vulture). They flew to a bare tree as I slowly approached in my car and stared down at me as I was staring up at them. Wonderful!"Later, looking them up in my bird book, I realized why they are called 'turkey' vultures. At first sight I thought they were 'pretty funny looking turkeys' until I saw their naked red heads. I've enjoyed bird watching for many years, and this was a thrill! I know they're probably very common, but my first sight of a vulture is now glued to my eyeballs like jewelry."

Historically speaking, turkey vultures were not commonly seen in New Hampshire until a few years ago.

To give that perspective on the subject, I quote from my favorite New Hampshire ornithologist, Tudor Richards. In his "A List of the Birds of New Hampshire," published in April of 1938, by the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, he wrote: "Turkey Vulture — Occasional visitor, reported every few years in southern New Hampshire. Late March — October."

It was in Walpole, while driving along the River Road, that I saw my first turkey vultures in New Hampshire — a flock of 28 birds that casually circled above the Connecticut River valley. They were not 'new' to me for I had seen several feeding voraciously on road kills beside the highways as I traveled through Delaware and Maryland. T. C.

Pearson (1919) said "... in many a southern city the vultures constitute a most effective street cleaning department."Awkward and clumsy on the ground, turkey vultures are aerial wizards. Perhaps Edward Howe Forbush said it best in "Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States" when he wrote: "No other American bird is so generally celebrated for its perfect conquest of the aerial currents. It seems to sail and soar gracefully without effort and to gain altitude even in windless air with few motions of its widespread pinions, which carry it up as if by magic. It seems to materialize the flight of the dreamer who imagines that he floats through the air by mere effort of his will. Bradford Torrey says, 'One might almost be willing to be a buzzard to fly like that.' Many people have sought their secret, but who has really found it? The Wright Brothers, pioneers in successful man-flight, studied the soaring buzzards on our southern coast, and apparently to some purpose."For those of our readers who are not familiar with this bird, the turkey vultures' basic color appears to be black, but, if one is close enough, their rusty feather edge gives the bird a brownish tinge.

They are about 2½ feet in length and have a wingspan of 6 feet. Their wings reach beyond the tip of their tails.

When aloft their great wings are two-toned, black near the fore-wing, gray at wing tips and hind-wing.

With all their elegance and gracefulness when airborne why then would ornithologist Rex Brasher say these birds are "ugly to the last degree?"

Although they look black and bulky close up, it is their bald, red heads that declaim against them.

This considerable but respectable defect is not noticeable when the birds are in flight, but when adult birds are near at hand their beauty becomes marred.

Immature birds may not appear quite so uncomely, however, for they have blackish heads.

With respect to their prowess in the air, John B. May, in his book, "The Hawks of North America," published in 1935 by the National Audubon Societies, wrote: "The turkey vulture is a master of easy effortless flight, sailing for hours at a time with set and motionless pinions, often at a tremendous elevation; when watching one with field glasses, I have been surprised to observe others high above, beyond the vision of the naked eye. When soaring the wings are held bent slightly upwards, forming a distinct angle with the bird's body at the apex of the angle. ..." (Current literature refers to this peculiarity as a slight dihedral). The tail is usually held closed and shows, from below, a narrow and slightly wedgeshaped outline, the central feathers being longest. The small naked head is quite inconspicuous and is usually carried close to the shoulders unless the bird is closely scanning some object. As the bird glides downward it often careens from side to side without changing the relative positions of the wings and tail."

Usually silent. When battling other vultures for carrion, turkey vultures issue hisses, grunts and croaks.

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

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