Turkey vultures not commonly seen in NH until fairly recently

STACEY COLE March 07. 2014 9:42PM

Historically speaking, turkey vultures were not commonly seen in New Hampshire until a relatively few years ago. To give perspective on the subject, I quote from my favorite New Hampshire ornithologist, the late Tudor Richards. In his "A List of the Birds of New Hampshire," published in April of 1938 by the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, Tudor wrote:

"Turkey vulture - Occasional visitor, reported every few years in southern New Hampshire. Late March - October."

It was while driving along the River Road in Walpole that I saw my first turkey vultures in New Hampshire - a flock of 28 birds that casually circled above the Connecticut River valley. Actually they were not a "new bird" to me as I had seen several vultures feeding voraciously on road kills beside interstate highways as I traveled south through Delaware and Maryland.

T. C. Pearson, a founder of the National Association of Audubon Societies, which became the National Audubon Society, said (1919) "... in many a southern city the vultures constitute a most effective street cleaning department."

One of our Allenstown readers wrote on Jan. 29 in part: "Three years ago this May we moved here and the previous owner let us know, in a rather easy manner, that we would see about 30 vultures every morning and evening roosting in our back woods area.

"We were immediately captivated by these magnificent creatures. Huge, silent and non-aggressive, we quickly fell in love with them. We have wetlands in the back, and we have several dead trees that they love. Last winter we lost many of those dead trees to the elements and we have been very anxious about the birds return for lack of good perches for them.

"Lo and behold, several vultures came back on Feb. 26, 2013. It was still cold and very unpleasant for them. However, they survived the cold and the wind. We also saw in April and May many smaller vultures. We wish we knew where they birth their little ones. They left in October and we are anxious for their return, though I don't want to see them too early in this awful cold."

With respect to the turkey vulture's nesting behavior, Arthur Cleveland Bent in his "Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey" wrote: "In any region, no matter how widely it may range, there is a limited number of places in which a bird as large as a turkey vulture can hide its nest. The vulture is a big bird; it must have room somewhere either inaccessible to predatory animals or where they cannot easily reach its eggs or young. There is the added danger that the odor of the food may proclaim the whereabouts of the nest after the eggs are hatched and the young birds have to be fed. Many situations meet these requirements in some degree, notably on precipitous cliffs, of access only through the air or in caves or hollow stumps, or in the midst of dense shrubbery where a narrow entrance limits the attack by enemies to one direction. In such locations the vulture lays its eggs on the ground, or on the bare stone of a cliff, or on the rotten chips in a hollow log with little or no attempt to make a nest."

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

On their flying ability, Edward Howe Forbush wrote in "Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States": "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 vulture's basic color appears to be black but, if one is close enough, its rusty feather edges give the bird a brownish tinge. They are about 2-1/2 feet in length and have a wingspan of six 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.

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

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