A few weeks ago, I spent some time hanging out with some relatively common birds. We overlook our sparrows, doves and crows... we skip past the redtail to watch the peregrine (I'm completely guilty, but it's almost easier to find a peregrine in San Francisco than a redtail, and I know for a fact that none of our redtails have a 24 hour live-cam).
So I made it a point to stop and watch everyday birds... coots, robins, jays. Some very common birds were perched on power poles above Bolinas Lagoon, preening in the early morning fog. They were quite elegant, spreading their grand and glossy wings, sunning and preening every feather into perfect alignment. They glanced down at the earthbound mortal...
... not ready just yet.
Most people wouldn't consider turkey vultures to be attractive birds and, by conventional standards, they might have a point. Their bare heads seem small and out of scale with their large bodies. (Those bare heads give them a superficial resemblence to Wild Turkeys and, hence, the name.) But those heads are extremely practical for a bird whose eating habits can get kinda messy.
Many birds dabble in scavenging - ravens, gulls and bald eagles come to mind, and some unexpected species like chickadees. But for most birds, it's just part of their food mix; for the vultures, it's their mainstay and they are beautifully adapted to the niche. The bare heads won't get matted with gore when they are digging deep inside a large carcass; they have a strong sense of smell, which helps them find food; and they have very powerful immune and digestive systems which protects them from disease. (Unfortunately, that system does not offer them protection from chemical agents as well, and some vulture populations have been affected by supplements and medications given to livestock, and by eating poisoned pests.)
Rather graceful as they soar above, despite their awkward ambling on the ground.
Though they resemble raptors in some ways (especially with their hooked bills), they aren't well built for taking live prey. Like any animal, they're opportunists and will eat the odd mouse or snake that makes itself too available, but they lack the raptor's powerful feet to grab prey. They eat what they find where they find it, which is dangerous for young ones who don't know to get out of the way fast enough when they're eating road kill and cars come along. Their bills are large, but aren't strong enough to rip into the thick hides of larger animals - they must wait for another animal such as a coyote to "open" the carcass, or wait for a few days of putrefaction to soften the skin so that they can break through.
Here's how vultures should look, right?
Although the cartoon stereotype often shows vultures as the loner sitting in a craggy tree, they are actually quite gregarious and gather in flocks to roost and hunt for food. It's a good strategy... more eyes (and noses) searching gives them a better chance of finding something, and a large carcass will feed many. It works better to cooperate and share, sorta like songbirds who will flock to a tree full of berries as they ripen.
More about these guys below....
From what I've heard, they're fairly intelligent birds. Friends who work in rehab describe their curiosity and even playfulness. It may seem counterintuitive - how smart do you have to be to go around eating dead stuff? But if you think about it, they've got to learn to recognize food in many forms. A goldfinch doesn't have to make sense of thistle plants, and a hawk knows that if it's moving and it's the right size, it's food. But a vulture needs to explore a bit, and learn from its elders - a whole deer and a deer gutpile and an odd chunk of deer that fell from a carcass as a hunter was dragging it from the woods are all food - but they don't look anything alike. Likewise, some things smell like something died in here, but that doesn't mean it's actually food.
They have a few habits that strike us as gross, but which are pretty practical. Vulture researchers don't band them, because they excrete on their legs (which could create problems around a band). Yuck... but it helps cool them if they live in hot places, and the chemicals in it help sterilize their legs. If you get too close to them, especially at a nest, they defend by projectile vomiting. Well, you would back off, right? And that whole eating dead things bit... They perform a great service to the planet by cleaning things up. Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, refers to that purifying function. Without the vultures, we'd have to deal with many rotting animals all around us; they're the ultimate recyclers.
On my drive north, I saw a group of them along the edge of Bolinas Lagoon, and knew that the large number gathered could mean just one thing - they'd found food. I didn't want to flush them from their find so I began watching from a distance, but they allowed me to approach quite close eventually. (I should have guessed - they weren't fazed by cars whizzing by less than ten feet away.)
They've got something underneath all those wings...
They'd found a seal pup, as it turns out. A medium sized meal, and very fresh by the looks of it. They patiently waited their turn to feed - it wasn't going anywhere.
This next one is not for the squeamish (though not too bad).
Let me end on a lighter note... I love watching vultures sunning - soaking up the rays in the early morning. I think it's something that any of us can related to...
These guys have figured out a way to food security that might not work for most of us. We can help our fellow humans in that regard though - be sure to watch for a series of diaries today and tomorrow, starting with noweasels around 10 eastern today, titled: Feeding America: A Weekend of Hope.