Saturday, September 3, 2011

Turkey Vulture on the Little Miami River...

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).


...so not only do vultures clean up messes for us, they prevent the spread of disease.


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.

17 comments:

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Perfect post for International Vulture Appreciation Day! I love your photos and text.

Kelly said...

...Lynne...I didn't even realize today was that day!! Thank goodness that vulture dropped by yesterday on the river! I'm usually not with it!

TexWisGirl said...

loved your description of him - his eyes and jawline. i've always like them too. :)

Montanagirl said...

Great post, Kelly, and fabulous shots of the Vulture. We have them here as well. They are the most graceful bird in flight. I love seeing them and photographing them when I get the chance.

Elaine said...

Wonderful closeup shots and great story to go along with them. He certainly was keeping an eye on you. "Please, I'm trying to eat here. Could you move along?" I just recently read about how scavengers eat and kill the disease-causing bacteria. They play an important role in our ecosystem.

Jain said...

Superb photos of one of my favorite birds!
The stance in the third one struck me as almost human-like.

freebird said...

I didn't know why they had the bald head and was going to ask and then you nicely answered before I could do so!

That was quite interesting all around.

grammie g said...

Hi Kelly...I know one thing...they will eat a dead Skunk...so perhaps not going by smell alone sounds right...lol
Good info I did not know...and great photo's!!

I see them soaring and circling out here just about every day ..I love to watch them !!

Grace

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

This is a great post, lots of information and this series of photos are superb. I have a real fascination and affection for turkey vultures and I am always happy to see them even when it nothing more than a glimpse over the city. It always reminds me that the world is going on as it should.

Thank You
Guy

KAT said...

that was very interesting post. I think you have such great photos. thanks for the post on these interesting and helpful creatures.

Marco Alpha said...

Hello Kelly,
Very nice shots of this special bird!! He has wonderful colors.
I saw at your blog the pictures of that snake, they are amazing. Very well done, my compliments!!

Greetings, Marco

Banjo52 said...

Once again, thanks for the great pics and info on these birds, which to me are mysterious, ominous, beautiful and icky. I love 'em in the air, but on the ground, not so much, though I do realize their function is valuable.

Surely the medical field is studying their digestive juices for possible help with E. coli and such in humans?

Elva Paulson said...

Wonderful photos. Turkey vultures are one of those birds I love to draw ... but most people don't appreciate. I'm glad you do.

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone! Sounds like we all feel the same. This fellow is under appreciated...and interesting. One thing about photographing from a canoe...the boat is constantly moving and you slip away so quickly. I was going to circle around and go upstream and float back down to get better photos, but decided to leave him in peace to eat his meal. Have a great Labor Day!

abirdersnotebook said...

Kelly I don't know if you realize it but your blog was mentioned along with the article about the Turkey Vulture on the ABA Blog. Congrats.

dAwN said...

Super post Kelly!

Chad said...

Great post! This has always been one of my very favorite birds. Especially as a kid, I was always so excited to see a Turkey Vulture and when I found out the puked when they got excited - I loved them even more!