Turkey vultures, odd-looking birds

Turkey vultures, odd-looking birds
Park Ranger Alyssa Henn of Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area shares a turkey vulture with students and their families while giving a Scales and Tales presentation during a Family Night in the Media Center at Spring Garden Elementary School in Hampstead Wednesday, Feb 25, 2915. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A few weeks ago a woman who lives in Sykesville called to tell me about vultures that roost every night in the top of a large pine tree in her backyard.

She said they arrive in the early evening and fly off in the morning. On some days before leaving in the morning, they stand with their long wings spread wide apart — apparently a habit that helps them to soak in warmth from the sun after a cold night.


There are several members of the flock — a group of large black birds that she never has had an opportunity to observe up close.

The fact that the vultures are regular visitors to the neighborhood did not seem to bother her at all. She was just curious to know why they leave when spring arrives and wondered where they go. She said she expects the vultures to return at summer's end just as they have done for several years.

If she were able to take a close look at her turkey vultures, she would see some odd-looking birds. Turkey vultures are very large raptors with long wings, dark bodies, and featherless heads. The skin on the adult's head is red while the skin on an immature turkey vulture is grey. The black vulture is named for the black skin on its naked head.

Turkey vultures hop about awkwardly on the ground, and it takes an effort for them to take off for flight. But once in the air, their flight is impressive as they soar gracefully and follow thermal updrafts that allow them to circle almost in place, their wings lifted in a "V" shape as they tilt back and forth.

They have very keen eyesight as well as an acute sense of smell that help them search for carrion, dead animals — the main staple of their diet. Unlike black vultures, the turkey vulture eats very little live prey. They have a large, light-colored bill with a short hook at the end that enables them to tear into their food. However, the bill does not have the sharpness or strength of other raptors.

It's not unusual to see small groups of vultures feeding together on a dead carcass. They tend to take turns eating and sometimes hiss at one another if one bird takes too long a turn. They can't "shout" at each other, nor can they call or sing because they have no vocal organs.

During the breeding season, the flocks that have roosted together during the winter months disband. They pair up and find a place to lay their eggs (usually two) and raise their young birds. Turkey vultures do not build nests. They lay their eggs on the ground, on ledges, cliffs, even in abandoned buildings. Many years ago when Rosewood State Hospital still functioned to serve people with mental illnesses, my sister Bevie who worked there, showed me pictures that a colleague had taken. There were two vulture nestlings peaking out of an opening in a deserted building.

One of the parents was nearby. The exact location was never revealed.

Our neighbor in Sykesville will be looking for the return of her vultures at the end of the breeding season. For now, she will have to be content with the songbirds that delight so many of us at this time of year.

The arrival of many species, some passing through and some intending to spend the summer with us, have been recently noted by several members of the Carroll County Bird Club. Here are a few to keep an eye out for: eastern towhee, rose-breasted grosbeak, house wren, blue-gray gnatcatcher, red-winged blackbird, Barn swallow, brown thrasher, swamp sparrow, and chimney swift. Male goldfinches seem to have just arrived on the scene in their bright yellow plumes and black caps. The truth is, they have been here all year long; they've just exchanged their dull winter garb for a fresh new suit.

The next meeting of the Carroll County Bird Club will be held May 4 at 7 p.m. We will meet at the Carroll Non-Profit Center in Westminster, and Dave Harvey will talk about Birding in Chile. All are welcome to attend.