Turkey Vulture
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 6/6/99

Large, soaring birds are both easy and fun to watch from my inflatable kayak.  Because our gaze is usually focused downward throughout most of our daily routine activities, we often miss the numerous aerial displays that occur over our heads that come from watching clouds and soaring birds. Unlike most small, nervously feeding songbirds, large raptors hunt at a more leisurely pace and can often be seen circling above with extended wings, wafting on air thermals as they hunt for prey far below.

Fifteen species of raptors are common to the Eno River Valley. In my experience, the turkey vulture is by far the most commonly observed. With a wing span of six feet, it cannot pass unobserved. Binoculars are not needed to distinguish it from the various hawks and eagles in the area. Unfortunately, most birders show signs of disappointment at a vulture sighting, perhaps because they are so common, but also because they are often considered by our culture to be one of the less attractive birds, possessing unappetizing habits.

When I look up and observe a large, soaring bird in the distance, I first notice the curvature of the wings, which, with a turkey vulture, are curved upward slightly at the tips. This can be noticed at quite a distance without binoculars. If the bird moves in at medium range, I check to see the color pattern on the undersides of the wings. In a turkey vulture there is black on the forward sides of the wings and gray toward the back.  As the great bird moves in still closer, a small, red, turkey-like head confirms the sighting, although a juvenile may have a gray head.

Almost every time I take a group of wafters out on the river a vulture will appear, move in closer and soar over us. For some new boaters this feels like an ominous experience. I also wonder why the vulture needs to check us out so carefully.  Are they actually observing us to see if our eyeballs are still moist or to take a whiff of our odor to decide if there are any rotting among us? Perhaps they are just curious animals and are entertained by our presence on the water.

The turkey vulture is not a bird confined just to rivers. It inhabits any open spaces above field, forest or water. They are frequently observed over water around the Eno, because, with the high percentage of forested area in the Triangle,  spaces over water are often among the few arenas for us to observe the open sky. Occasionally I see them perched on snags overhanging the river.  This is not because they are necessarily waiting for dead fish to float up, but because there is probably a higher percentage of dead trees with exposed perching limbs along river banks.

On one occasion I paddled under a group of twenty turkey vultures roosting in a tree that was overhanging the Eno. My presence did not disturb them. They simply turned and lowered their necks and heads to see what curious sight was passing beneath them. My only concern was that if they got nervous, certain unpleasant realities might start falling on my head! 

What makes the turkey vulture special for wafters of the Eno is the bird's ability to sustain flight without wing flapping for such long periods. The secret lies in its ability to read the air currents. Vultures take advantage of air thermals, which are rising columns of warm air. Once a bird detects a thermal, it will attempt to remain within that limited area by soaring slowly in closed circles. The vulture maintains its forward thrust by allowing gravity to pull him earthward, but at a rate that is less than the speed of the rising warm air column. The total effect is that the bird can remain in a perpetual wafting motion with very little effort.

There are seven species of vultures in the new world. A slightly smaller species, known as the "black" vulture, is the other vulture found in eastern America. Seen from below, its white wing tips easily distinguish it from the turkey vulture. In tropical America there are, in addition, the lesser and greater yellow-headed vultures which are similar to the turkey and black vultures.  There is also a colorful, and yes beautiful, king vulture.

I have been privileged to observe king vultures launching off of the top of a waterfall in the mountains of central Belize.  John and William Bartram recorded seeing king vultures along the St. John's River in Florida in the 18th century, but there are no records for sightings in Florida since that time. Finally, there are the two great condors, the Andean and California, which are the largest of our American vultures with wing spans of up to nine feet. I carry on my key chain an Incan engraving of the Andean condor.

In his final book, The Active Side of Infinity, Carlos Castaneda recounts a bizarre story from his childhood. In the culture of South America where he was raised, the turkey vulture was believed to have seven different types of flesh, each serving a specific curative purpose if consumed by humans. Hence, the vulture's flesh is highly prized.  The only problem was that the vulture had to first be captured alive, not shot in the air or violently killed, if the meat was to retain its curative value. The challenge was to catch the big bird alive.

As a child Carlos was lured into this remarkable hunt by a conniving neighbor, Mr. Acosta, who first slaughtered and gutted a donkey and instructed the young Carlos to hide in the empty donkey carcass until a turkey vulture descended on it. When the bird stuck its red head into the empty intestinal cavity, Carlos was to grab the bird by the neck!
Such are the lengths to which some cultures will go in their admiration for this remarkable bird. This story also reveals how multifaceted man's perception of nature is. A repugnant bird in one culture is a highly sought after and esteemed bird of healing in another.

Everyone is enamored with sleek and powerful hawks, falcons, osprey and eagles. It is probably the scavenging reputation of the vulture and its requisite, but unattractive, bald head that have created our uncomfortable feeling toward the bird. But what an important task of recycling the vulture performs. It tidies up the leftover feeding messes left by carnivorous animals as well as the carcasses of naturally dying animals.

Somebody has got to do it!  And if while on patrol, it soars and provides one of nature's finest wafting spectacles, then there is much to love and respect about this raptor. 

Photo by A. Wilson: turkey vulture