An Ode to the Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Mouser Williams)

By Bob Loy

St. Patrick’s Day in Los Alamos County is cause for more than one reason to celebrate. Aside from the obvious day of celebrating Irish heritage, our beloved Turkey Vultures return to their roost in Omega Canyon (just behind the ice rink). For the last few months, they’ve been wintering in Mexico and Central America. Some fly as far as South America before returning each spring to breed in North America.

Turkey Vultures were spotted in Los Alamos County for the first time in 2020 on Sunday, March 15 near the Los Alamos Ice Rink, so they are starting to arrive now!

Many are surprised to learn that Turkey Vultures are my favorite bird. Here are a few fun facts that brought me to this conclusion:

A group of Turkey Vultures roosting in the trees behind the ice rink. (Photo by Mouser Williams)
  • By consuming the carcasses of diseased animals, vultures prevent the spread of life-threatening diseases such as rabies and anthrax among animals and humans.
  • Vultures are equipped with a digestive system that contains special acids that will dissolve anthrax, botulism, and cholera bacteria.
  • Vultures have the unusual habit of urohydrosis — defecating on their legs to cool them by evaporation.
  • The bald, or lightly-feathered, head is specially designed to stay clean even when confronted with blood and bodily fluids present in the carcasses. Any remaining germs are baked off by the sun.
  • Most vultures mate for life. 

Soooooo, the next time you see a Turkey Vulture eating something dead on the road don’t say “yuck.” A simple “Thanks!” is more in order. And, if you have time and can do so safely, push that dead thing off the road so the Turkey Vulture won’t get hit by a car.

How to Find and Identify Turkey Vultures:

Soaring Turkey Vulture. (Photo by Bob Walker)
  • Turkey Vultures appear to be black from a distance. When you see them up close, you’ll notice that they are dark brown with a featherless red head and a pale bill.
  • On sunny days, look for them flying as early as 9 AM. In colder weather and at night they roost on poles, towers, dead trees, and fence posts. The trees near the ice rink are a good place to start your search in the morning or around sunset. 
  • Look for them gliding relatively low to the ground, sniffing for carrion, or else riding thermals up to higher vantage points.
  • Soaring Turkey Vultures can be identified by the long “fingers” at their wingtips and their long tails. Their bodies and the tops of their wings are dark, but the bottom of their flight feathers are much paler.
  • Turkey Vultures raise their wings slightly when they soar, making a “V” shape. They rarely flap and wobble a bit while cruising through the air.
  • They may soar in small groups and roost in larger numbers. You may also see them on the ground in small groups, huddled around roadkill or dumpsters.

Bird of the Month: The Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vultures are common summer residents of Los Alamos County. Photo by Bob Walker.

By Bob Walker

As the end of summer approaches, our Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) will soon start to head south for the winter, returning back to Los Alamos County in early March. These wide-ranging birds are year-round residents from South America through Central America to the Southeastern U.S. They are found in the summer in the rest of the U.S. up to southern Canada.

Turkey Vultures are the September selection for Bandelier National Monument’s Year of the Bird program. The National Park Service designed this program to highlight the importance of protecting migrating birds, and 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You can visit Bandelier’s website to learn more about this program for the remainder of this year.

Turkey Vultures characteristically soar with their wings held in a v-shaped pattern, wobbling as they soar, either looking for thermals or dropping to lower altitudes to search for carrion. Their flight behavior is imitated by the less common Zone-tailed Hawk, which has white bands on its tail feathers. The hawk uses its Turkey Vulture disguise to fool prey. Turkey Vultures do not chase live prey but locate decaying food by smelling the gas mercaptan, making them one of the few birds with a highly developed sense of smell.

Turkey Vultures breed here in the summer, leaving in October for the winter to head to Central America, going as far south as Ecuador. While here for the summer, they roost in several well-known locations in the county. You can always find them roosting above the ice rink in Los Alamos Canyon, in Bandelier National Monument, and they sometimes in trees in White Rock.

Turkey Vultures roosting in a cottonwood tree in White Rock. Photo by Bob Walker.

Find more detailed articles about Turkey Vultures on these web pages: identify.whatbird.com, allaboutbirds.org, and in the PEEC Nature Guide. You can also see beautiful photos of Turkey Vultures at the Alan Murphy web site. For more images, perform an image search on Google or Flickr, and you’ll find many excellent photographs.

Bird of the Week – The Turkey Vulture

by Bob Walker

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are summertime visitors we regularly see soaring in the skies above Los Alamos County. These wide-ranging birds are year-round residents from South America through Central America and up to the Southeastern US. During the summer, they venture across the rest of the US and up to southern Canada. They characteristically soar with their wings held in a v-shaped pattern, wobbling as they soar, either looking for thermals or dropping to lower altitudes to search for carrion. They locate food by detecting and following the smell of the gas mercaptan, and are one of the few birds with a highly developed sense of smell.

Our first Turkey Vultures arrive in spring around the first of March, one of the first birds that signal the beginning of spring migration. They breed here in the summer, leaving in mid-October for the winter, heading toward Central America, perhaps as far south as Ecuador. While here for the summer, they roost in several well-known locations in the county. Three of these include a roost near the ice rink in Los Alamos Canyon, one or more in Bandelier National Monument, and sometimes in cottonwood trees along Grand Canyon Drive in White Rock.

Turkey Vultures roosting in a cottonwood tree in White Rock.

Find more detailed articles about Turkey Vultures on these web pages: identify.whatbird.com and allaboutbirds.org.   You can see beautiful photos of Turkey Vultures at the Alan Murphy web site. For more images, perform an image search on Google or Flickr, and you’ll find many excellent photographs.