I read Steve’s piece about Vultures and his dog with interest and thought, perhaps, this might be a good time to share some other details of vulture lore. I am not a vulture expert by any stretch of the imagination but have observed and admired them with much amazement. Their powers of flight have fascinated me since childhood. Why did other birds have to work so hard to fly while the vultures flew without effort?
I remember a particular incident that happened on a warm, sunny day while I was seated at the top of a cliff overlooking a steep, narrow valley (locally termed a “draft”) in Virginia. A vulture soared perhaps a dozen yards over my shoulder from the rear. I watched as it descended in slow, broad, lazy spirals along the cliff-face, deeper and deeper into the valley. Finally crossing over the creek and across the valley floor to the parallel ridge on the far side. Still continuing with spirals magically gaining more and more altitude ultimately crossing the opposite ridge, a mile or more away, and out of sight. To me the most incredible part of this flight from ridge to valley floor, across then up and over the next ridge was accomplished without a single flap of its wings. Few other birds except for hawks and eagles could perform this feat.
We have two species of vulture at the Nature Preserve: The Turkey Vulture and the Black Vulture. Growing up in the mid twentieth century, we never saw black vultures. These were the vultures you might see on a trip south to the Carolinas, Georgia, or Florida. After college when I moved back to Delaware and worked in Lewes along the Delaware Bay, I would see an occasional black vulture. In flight the black vulture gives a few rapid wing flaps followed with a glide then repeats. However, when the weather is warm and sunny with large, thermal updrafts, the black vulture soars to tremendous heights like the turkey vulture, hawks, and eagles, until they can barely be seen with binoculars. When the light is good, distinctive, white wing patches, sometimes called windowpanes, can be seen at the base of their primary wing feathers.
The turkey vulture can be identified in flight by the slight dihedral of its wings. Hawks and eagles keep their wings flat. The turkey vulture also seems to tip from side to side by the slightest breeze. With binoculars adults can be seen to have red skin in their faces as well. This skin has evolved on vulture heads to help keep them cleaner while devouring a carcass.
Vulture romance is pretty direct. Prospective pairs and mated pairs gather in small groups in open fields for courtship and mating. Vultures mate for life and return to the same nest site if successful in raising their chicks. I have seen rival males swoop and dive bomb competitors in aerial displays but no real outright fighting.
Except for nests located in old barns and sheds, all of the nests I have found were on the ground. A quiet spot in a large pile of stumps at the edge of the forest, among a tangle of fallen trees, in a large hollow log or tree butt, and even in a dry, deep drainage ditch. I know of two nests that were in abandoned barn lofts (one nest a turkey vulture and one a black vulture), and two in old, deserted, dusty machinery sheds (both turkey vultures). Some nest sites on the Abbott’s Mill Property include the Native American Lodge replica, a pile of stumps and brush, the old unused machinery shed, and a lean-to shelter constructed of pine branches.
As far as I know, the vulture hen lays one, or more usually, two eggs. There is no attempt to build any sort of nest, but eggs are laid directly on the ground. When the chicks hatch, they are fuzzy little balls of white or cream fluff and quite comical.
When they are approached or feel threatened, they will hiss like a bunch of vipers. Just how any chicks survive predation is hard to explain. The parents feed on rotten carrion and bring it to the chicks in their crops. The chicks beg with a raspy voice and peck at the beak of the parents until the meal is regurgitated. The nest site becomes a smelly place. After the young have left the nest, both parents continue feeding the fledglings for a few weeks.
Studies have been done trying to settle the argument of how the vultures locate their next meal. If you read the older literature, it was thought that sight was used exclusively. The vulture’s eyesight, like that of the hawks and eagles, is legendary. In the middle of the twentieth century in North Carolina, I believe, experiments were conducted by concealing some “ripe” carrion where it could not be seen in the base of a chimney-like hollow tree. As the naturalist observed, a turkey vulture veered from its normal flight path, time after time, returning to circle directly downwind to that tree and the concealed carrion.
As later repeat experiments confirmed, the turkey vulture has a highly developed sense of smell in addition to its wonderful eyesight. It also turns out that the black vulture does not share that sense of smell, relying solely on eyesight and the observation of other raptors descending to a potential meal. These experiments could also explain why different naturalists had different opinions.
Vultures rely on carrion for their food. There are confirmed cases of the more aggressive black vulture killing lambs at birthing season. This habit was probably learned by first cleaning up the afterbirth then moved on to lambs. Just last week I observed turkey vultures in a meadow cleaning up after the birth of some calves. I just heard this morning in a discussion with one of our naturalists that black vultures sometimes take small birds at a feeder.
Black vultures are also very detrimental to sea turtle hatchlings when given the chance. Our local vultures are the cleanup crew for road-kills and the dead poultry inevitably found in poultry manure spread on Delmarva’s grainfields.
If I believed in re-incarnation, I might like to come back as a vulture, just sail effortlessly around and easily pick up my meals. A good friend of mine corrected me by saying, he thought I was a vulture in my previous life.
So, get outside and enjoy the trails. Happy Hiking!
Photos by the author