Yesterday Rick and I took the afternoon off work and headed up to Fort Ancient to go canoeing on the Little Miami. Canoeing is easy on the ankle (I have a "flat" right now), and when it's 100 degrees F, it's nice and cool on the river! We saw lots of birds...and turtles...and snakes...then as we rounded a bend, a horrible odor slammed us. "Oh my goodness...something must be dead," escaped my lips, and as I turned to the left, a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), very busy at his trade, looked up at me...
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) along the Little Miami River
Turkey Vultures are interesting birds to look at. They don't have the "cuteness" of small woodland birds or the fierceness of raptors, but there is something special about them that I like. Their eyes are actually beautiful--soft brown-grey and perfectly round, and the long downward turn to their jawline makes them appear mournful and resolute.
We all know Turkey Vultures are carrion eaters, and their razor-sharp, hooked beaks are perfect for the job, allowing them to slice through muscle with ease, but another adaptation that helps them scavenge dead animals are their very rough and rasp-like tongues, which allow them to "lick" or pull meat off the bones. (Source: "Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket," by John Eastman).
...and those crazy red, wrinkly, and bald heads! They are so unusual I have to stop and study them every time I see one. I've know since school days, and you probably do too, that their peculiar-looking heads are an adaptation that allows the birds to root into carcasses without coating feathers with bacteria-rich decomposing flesh...but how can they eat the contaminated meat without getting sick? They possess a "corrosive digestive system" that kills disease-causing bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and the bacteria that causes hog cholera, anthrax, and botulism (Eastman, pg 103).
I always thought Turkey Vultures found most of their meals by smell, but I recently read they use sight as well and have vision equal to that of hawks. An animal must be dead at least 12 hours before a Turkey Vulture can detect the gasses released by decay, and they prefer "fresher carcasses over badly rotted ones" (Eastman, 102), so they use their sight to detect weak, dying (unmoving animals) and other scavengers or vultures who have already found a carcass.
Our Turkey Vulture had definitely found his meal by smell, as the odor was quite powerful and the carcass was well hidden under a downed tree in a shaded area by the shore. He honed in on it quickly too, as just a few minutes earlier we saw him soar over us and around the bend. Who knew he could find the carcass so quickly once he picked up the scent! There was only one Turkey Vulture at the sight, so it had to have been him.