Discover Nature this week as turkey vultures begin arriving to our state.
I remember seeing these big birds many times as a child and wondering at the size of them as they circled in the sky. Last year, however, I got an up close look at several of them, when I rounded a turn on one of our many country roads. When you can see them at close range, it is easy to see a small resemblance to a wild turkey, and difficult to imagine how something so grotesque can be so valuable to our ecosystem.
A mature turkey vulture is a large-bodied bird with black plumage and a small, red, bare head, and a short, hooked and pale beak. From below, the wings appear black with the trailing half of the wing gray or silvery. When soaring, turkey vultures hold their wings in a V position and you will see them tilt from side to side as they soar.
These vultures roost in large colonies but forage individually, which means what I saw on the road was a rare sight for several of them to forage together. However, the incident was a typical example of the danger posed by passing vehicles as they scavenge on road-killed carcasses.
Highly specialized carrion feeders, turkey vultures locate their food by smell as well as by sight. As scavengers, they perform a valuable service by cleaning up the woods, grasslands and our roadsides. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, black vultures often rely on the turkey vulture’s keen sense of smell to locate the carrion on which they both feed.
A common summer resident in Missouri, this remarkable bird’s impressive soaring flight helps clean up the natural areas we enjoy. And contrary to the beliefs of some, they do not kill live animals and present little danger to livestock.