First, a few reasons why you might admire the turkey vulture. They are large birds with long, broad wings and bold, red heads. In the skies around Elko, only eagles are larger. They are masters at soaring, rarely needing to flap their wings. Long flight feathers on their wingtips help them sense air movement. They hold their wings slightly raised from horizontal, creating a distinctive ‘V’ shape. They are a bit unsteady as they soar, wobbling side to side in wind.
A group of vultures is often seen gliding in large circles as they ride rising columns of air called thermals. These thermals allow them to gain altitude. To travel across country, one by one they break out of the circle to glide in a long line. They slowly lose elevation during these glides, so when they find another thermal, they again circle inside it.
Sorry, but in the old Western movie, when the crusty, old prospector is crawling across the sand and dying of thirst, those circling vultures are not waiting for him to die. They are simply crossing the desert on thermals.
Now, unfortunately, a few reasons you might not admire turkey vultures. They are often seen soaring fairly low to the ground, watching and smelling for dead animals. That red head is bare skin. Vultures feed on carrion, although to be fair, they generally feed on recently dead animals. They feed by thrusting their heads into bloody body cavities to tear off morsels of decaying meat. Obviously, a feathered head would be very messy.
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Perhaps you enjoy watching migrating turkey vultures, as they circle over Elko each spring. They often roost together at night in a group called a wake since they look to be in mourning as they hang their heads in sleep.
Perhaps you do not enjoy their favorite roosting site in Elko, which are the large trees in the city cemetery. People sometimes propose they like to roost above the cemetery since they can smell death. But they probably like roosting over the cemetery since it offers large, mature trees. Besides, the cemetery is quiet, with little human activity to disturb their slumbers. They remember this great roosting spot and return to it year after year, since they usually live 20 years.
Another reason to admire turkey vultures is they are a bird that successfully lives near people. We provide them with carrion in the form of dead livestock and road kills. Perhaps not so admirable is the common sight of vultures lumbering into the air as our cars approach them along the highway, leaving behind their snack of squashed jack rabbit on the asphalt. Other vultures often perch on nearby fence posts awaiting their turn to eat.
Definitely admirable is their ability to locate carrion by smell. They have the largest olfactory system of any bird and can detect carrion hidden in a forest as they soar overhead. During a 1986 scientific study in Panama, vultures found 71 of 74 chicken carcasses within three days. It made no difference if the carcasses were concealed. It did take them more time to find the freshest kills. Although older carcasses gave off a stronger odor, vultures showed a definite preference for fresher carcasses. In 1938, the Union Oil Company injected a strong-smelling chemical into their gas lines, since they could easily find leaks by watching for vulture activity above the pipelines.
Turkey vultures also use sight to locate carrion. Some scientists argue which sense they find more useful in the search for food. Vultures also keep track of other nearby vultures and often locate food by seeing other vultures drop suddenly to the ground.
They have only two close relatives. One is the black vultures found only in the southeast United States and in southern Arizona. The other is the larger California condor. This bird is making a comeback in southern Utah, northern Arizona and eastern California. Perhaps someday we will watch condors rising from Elko area roadkill alongside turkey vultures.