Turkey Vultures Flourish in the U.S. Thanks to Road Kill

Jeffrey S. Hampton
The Virginian-Pilot
June 21, 2001
A mangled animal lay on the blacktop highway cooking under the hot sun,
soon to be a TV dinner.

TV as in turkey vulture.

The ugly,
bald-faced birds, beauties to those who love them, are on the rise in
northeastern North Carolina and elsewhere. The breeding bird survey of
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows vulture populations have
increased by 10 percent in the last few years.

The hard numbers
don't reflect precise counts, but the relative rise of the count year
after year indicates a large increase, says Carl Betsill, section
manager for research and regulations for the North Carolina Division of
Wildlife Management.

"That's a significant upward trend," Betsill said.

Speeding traffic on back roads provides the vultures with much of their prey. The more cars, the more road kill, and that could be one of the reasons for the rise in the vulture population, scientists say.

"They're doing pretty well because there's a lot of dead things on the road," Betsill said.

Vultures are gross and clean at the same time. They gobble up road kill and can hurl the ingested remains at a potential attacker, leaving a horrible odor. On the other hand, they gracefully soar for hours at a time on rising air currents without flapping a wing. The scientific name for turkey vulture, Cathartes aura, means "cleansing breeze."

Vultures release urine down their legs to clean off bacteria. They help keep the countryside clean of rotting animals. Their heads are featherless so they can thrust them into the gut of a carcass without leaving a nasty mess on their feathers. Bacteria die on their faces. They spend many hours preening their feathers for a shine fit for a shampoo commercial.

Their usefulness and beauty are extolled by birders and followers, such as members of the Turkey Vulture Society in Nevada, the organizers of the Turkey Vulture Festival in California, and creators of the several Web sites dedicated to educating the public about "nature's garbage disposal."

Two species of vultures live in North Carolina: the turkey vulture and the black vulture. Turkey vultures are more numerous and are seen all over the United States. The 6-foot (1.8-meter) wingspan nearly equals that of the bald eagle. Turkey vultures can soar for hours with little or no flapping, their wings forming a shallow V.

Black vultures have 5-foot (1.5-meter) wingspans. They flap their wings more and soar with their wings flat.

The turkey vulture gets its name from its red featherless head, which resembles that of a wild turkey. Black vultures have featherless black heads and black body feathers.

Neither builds nests. Instead, they deposit eggs on the ground, in a hollow tree or even in an abandoned barn. Both varieties live in groups that roost together at night in stands of trees.

Vulture Hotels

"I like to call them vulture hotels," said Betty O'Leary, a rehabilitator at the Carolina Raptor Center in Charlotte.

Nine turkey vultures have been brought in for treatment this year compared with six in all of last year, an indicator of a population increase.

O'Leary sees vultures up close and has learned a lot about their personalities. They may not look too smart, but looks are deceiving, she said.

"I would say that compared to other raptors they tend to be more intelligent," O'Leary said.

Vultures learn not to be afraid of humans, she said. One in captivity at the raptor center loved to untie staff members' shoestrings. They tried to trick the vulture by wearing velcro shoes, but the vulture quickly learned to undo those, too, O'Leary said. Another vulture used to pick up sticks in its claw and drop them over and over again to show agitation.

Vultures, at least in captivity, have preferences for the type of dead animals they eat.

"They don't really care for opossums too much," O'Leary said. "Opossums are too greasy. Rats are good. They like rats."

But in the wild, they aren't so choosy and will eat opossums.

There are stories of vultures developing attachments to humans. In one case, a vulture followed a boy to his bus every day. Once the bus was gone, the vulture flew away in its hunt for food. When the bus returned, the vulture would be there and follow the boy home.

Vultures have one of the best senses of smell among all birds. Gas companies have used them to find leaks. A strong-smelling gas is pumped through the pipes, drawing a flock of vultures over the leak. Gas company crews just look for the soaring vultures.

A sight seen more often lately.

(c) 2001 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA.

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