Majestic turkey vultures always on the hunt

Posted Nov. 27, 2009, at 8:26 p.m.

The large, dark bird flew just above the tree line near the road, circling around and back to one particular area. I noticed its wings were held upward in a shallow angle — what’s referred to as a “dihedral” — and it seemed to teeter in the air.

I wondered why it was so close to the road, then discovered the grisly reason: an unfortunate skunk had been hit and killed by a vehicle. This is what had been attracting the turkey vulture’s attention.

As I passed the area I hoped the carrion bird would not become another victim to the road as it sought to take advantage of that food source.

The turkey vulture has always intrigued me. Although up close its bald, red ugly head captures all the attention, in the air it is transformed into a creature of beauty. Its size and wingspread are imposing, and there is majesty to its flight.

I remember climbing up a bluff overlooking a pond in central Maine. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, the air still and sweet with the scents of pine pitch. Suddenly six of the big birds flew into sight, soaring with an easy grace below the rim of the bluff. This afforded me a very different perspective, as I was at a higher level looking down on their backs.

The tableau is etched in my mind: the six sentinel-like birds cloaked in deep chocolate brown floating regally among sand-hued cliffs, the blue-gray pond below and the soft blue sky above. I could hear their passage as their wings whispered in the air; their shadows rippled against the cliff-face as they crossed over the pond; I thought they were probably on the prowl for food.

Unlike most other birds, turkey vultures rely on a highly developed sense of smell to locate the carrion upon which they feed. This, combined with excellent eyesight and their low cruising altitude, enables them to locate food hidden beneath a forest canopy or other obstruction.

According to “The Birds of North America” range map, turkey vultures are listed as breeding only in the southern coastal part of Maine, and wintering only as far north as Connecticut; however, for a number of years now they’ve been sighted in many areas of the state throughout the year. However, for the most part northern populations are migratory, and every February about mid-month, reports on the MaineBiding.net Maine Bird Alert begin broadcasting the “vanguard” of turkey vultures returning to their breeding grounds. They are one of the earliest migrants to arrive here from wintering grounds farther south.

Turkey vultures are thought to mate for life, only finding another mate in the event the first dies or disappears. They nest most often in rocky crevices, or downed, hollow trees, but may use abandoned buildings as well, as long as they are far from human disturbance. Both parents take turns incubating two eggs.

I wondered if the bird I saw above the road was a young bird born this year; studies have shown these young birds to experience high mortality in late fall in winter, with vehicle collisions (as the inexperienced birds attempt to feed on road-kill), being a significant factor.

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