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Blane Klemek column: Turkey vultures possess adaptive characteristics

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Edward Abbey once wrote of the turkey vulture; "Let us praise the noble turkey vulture: no one envies him; he harms nobody; and he contemplates our little world from a most serene and noble height."

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Indeed, the turkey vulture is mentioned with reverence in many of Abbey's books.

Even in death, as Abbey also pens, "If my decomposing carcass nourishes the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture - that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves."

The turkey vulture, on the other hand, knows none of this. That it's revered by some people, or feared or despised by others, is of no consequence to it whatsoever. For the turkey vulture is merely living its life - usually from lives lost - unaffected by the attention of human observers, as it soars effortlessly on extended wings searching the ground below, scenting rising thermals, riding the thermals, for the deceased, for food. It's the way of the turkey vulture.

Not long ago as I was driving my truck to the far northwestern corner of Minnesota, I stopped for a short break at a countryside public water access to the Red Lake River. Swelled at the time from recent heavy rains, the river's untamed appearance contrasted sharply with the rangeland and cropland it meandered through on its journey to the Red River of the North.

Adjacent to the grassy parking area was an overgrazed pasture. Its fence, long ago erected and long in need of maintenance, consisted of four strands of barbed wire stapled to wooden posts generally spaced at equal distances from one another. The tops of six nearby fence posts were occupied by six different turkey vultures, each keeping watchful eyes on both me and the reason they were there in the first place.

Patience, as it has always appeared to me with regard to the turkey vulture, is an unending virtue of the bird. Seemingly indifferent to my presence, the birds were simply waiting for my departure, and when I at last did leave, they each vaulted themselves from their individual perches and flew to the calf carcass that lay amongst the thistle, cattle dung, and hard-packed dirt.

When thinking of turkey vultures, I believe most people would not think of Minnesota as being the home of these fascinating, specialized birds of prey. But the fact is there are plenty of turkey vultures living and breeding right here in the Northland.

Belonging to the family Cathartidae, the turkey vulture is one of only three species of North American, or "new world," vultures. The other two species are the very large and rare California condor, and the black vulture.

Turkey vultures are big and eagle-like in appearance, especially in flight. With a body length of nearly three feet and a wingspan of about six feet, it's easy to see why people often mistake a turkey vulture for an eagle or large hawk. But a closer look reveals that the turkey vulture looks much different than eagles and hawks.

Their heads, when compared to those of eagles, are smaller and featherless, and when in flight, the undersides of their wings show a distinctive two-toned color pattern - black wing linings and silver-gray flight feathers. And as already mentioned, turkey vultures soar with ease as they ride the thermals and updrafts created from rising heat and air currents.

The gravity defying flight-style of these birds is accomplished by rocking their bodies back and forth as they catch the updrafts upon lengthy wings. As well, while eagles soar with wings stretched horizontally from their bodies, turkey vultures hold their wings in a "V" as they soar in ascending circles above the landscape.

Turkey vultures are also one of very few species of birds that possess a highly developed sense of smell. Large nostril openings within their beaks are a clear sign of its amazing ability to detect its favorite and almost exclusive food item: carrion. By soaring above forests and fields, turkey vultures are able to detect carcasses of animals by both sight and scent.

Turkey vultures, like many other vultures, have featherless heads. As homely as it may appear, being a "bald" bird is an adaptation that serves a very good purpose. As one would expect, a rotting carcass contains a host of bacteria and parasites. Therefore, having a naked head is just the head to have when probing the insides of decaying carcasses for meals. So why the bald head? Feathers would be difficult to keep clean, while, on the other hand, a featherless head is easy to keep clean.

Named the turkey vulture because its head resembles another featherless, redheaded native bird, the wild turkey, we are nonetheless fortunate to have such a unique bird here in Minnesota. And though perhaps not as majestic or as beautiful as the eagle, I would argue, as undoubtedly so would have Edward Abbey, that no other bird matches the turkey vultures' elegant flight, superior senses and disposition.

Nary have the flaps of wings against wisps of wind gone a greater grace than that of the turkey vulture as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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