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.

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