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NATURE HAPPENINGS - April 2004

Spring Migrants
by Damian Fagan

The birds descend from the darkening sky as rain slips across the redrock cliff. Strong winds stir a thick porridge of dust and debris that chokes the valley. Trees sway like festivarians to the windy rhythm, and thick, cold drops of rain pound the pavement with a staccato beat. The flock of birds finds shelter amongst the tree’s thick branches, waiting out the weather.

These fronts sweep across the landscape here, punctuating weeks of pleasant temperatures with short-lived winds and rain. Nice weather if you’re a duck, but for the thirty or so turkey vultures perched in the large cottonwoods, these storms can raise hell with your migration schedule.

Ranging from the tip of Cape Horn to Canada, vultures are migratory in these parts. They do not stick around during the winter, but choose to head south. Though they occur in summer, a handful of nesting records for southeastern Utah exist. Though vultures are known to fly through inclement weather, these birds decide to layover and take in the sights. Or smells, as may be the case.

Related to hawks and eagles, vultures share a common trait of excellent vision with their predatory relatives. Some ornithologists group New World vultures with storks and flamingos, because their weak feet are used more for perching than for grasping prey. Where the vulture diverges from their hooked-beak cousins, is in their ability to locate prey by smell.

To a vulture, there is nothing finer than the aroma of a rotting carcass. Their genus name, Carthartes, means “cleanser”, a reflection upon their behavioral trait of never passing up a good meal of road kill. Of course, these birds descend en masse to a banquet of deer or elk; often their communal soaring is a signal to others, like ravens, eagles and coyotes, to join in on the banquet. This trait encouraged the Cherokee Nation to call these birds “Peace Eagles.”

Often maligned for consuming putrid flesh, where would we be without these scavengers? The carcasses would be piling up. Carrion is not the only food that vultures eat. In a recent study of vulture pellets, biologists found that vegetation comprised over 50% of the vulture’s diet. With a digestive system that can process and kill viruses and bacteria, the vulture is the picture-perfect garbage disposal unit. Worries about the vulture’s fecal material containing these pathogens are unfounded.

Morning catches these bald-headed birds roosting in large cottonwoods or along cliff ledges. Holding their wings out to the sides, the birds absorb some vitamin D from the sun, plus catch some warming rays. They spend a considerable amount of time preening and bathing each day – you would too if you spent time with your head inside of a dead deer’s body cavity.

Late in the afternoon the vultures return to these roosts. Swirling about in an aerial kettle, unlike the organized V’s of geese skeins, their six-foot wingspans collapse as the birds descend back into the trees.

If I was a member of The Turkey Vulture Society – don’t laugh, such an organization exists, perhaps I would spend more time at these roosts, plotting the positioning of each bird. I’d get to know them as individuals, not as just another pretty face in the crowd. Maybe one sports a leg band, a USFWS identification, which would shed light on the bearer. Perhaps I’d find that these birds select the same roost on the same day each year until they are ready to resume their northward migration.

I can, and do, appreciate the position these scavengers hold. I enjoy their aerial acrobatics, their playful flights and effortless soaring. I wish them well on their northward migration, keeping in mind that I could always attend the 10th annual Turkey Vulture Festival in California this September. And you thought Utah was weird!

 

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