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Turkey Vultures: Nature’s Roadkill Clean-up Crew

2013 June 10

By Marcia Anderson

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

A century ago, turkey vultures were unknown in New York, New Jersey and other northeastern states, but thanks to our modern interstate highway system, they have moved north, following the trail of roadkill carcasses all the way up to Southern Canada. They are honorary Department of Transportation assistant road crews, reducing the amount of carrion that needs to be removed.

Turkey vultures can often be seen along roadsides feeding on roadkill, near bodies of water, feeding on washed-up fish or even at landfills. Turkey vultures do not kill live animals. They feed almost exclusively on carrion, playing an important role in the ecosystem by disposing of dead animals which actually reduces the spread of disease. They prefer freshly deceased animals, but will often have to wait for their meal to soften through some decomposition, in order to pierce the skin; however, they avoid carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction. Vultures appear to have excellent immune systems, happily feasting on carcasses without contracting botulism, anthrax, cholera or salmonell

a. Unfortunately, through bioaccumulation vultures may fall victim to pesticides, lead or other toxins from the dead animals that they eat.

Why is the vulture’s neck bare? It is a matter of hygiene. Feathers would only get in the way, befouled by their food.

Turkey vultures clean up the countryside one bite at a time. They find food using their keen eyesight and sense of smell, flying low enough to the ground to detect the gases produced by the beginning processes of decay in dead animals. Their nostrils can detect potential meals for miles around, even below the forest canopy, an ability that is otherwise uncommon in the avian world.

Often mistaken in flight for eagles, if you see a large bird soaring with its wings raised in a “V” and making wobbly circles, it’s likely a turkey vulture.

You have probably heard the saying: “The early bird catches the worm,” well that does not pertain to the turkey vulture. They are late risers. In flight, they use thermals to move through the air, but because the updrafts usually do not kick in until noon, after the sun has warmed things up, they can be seen in the morning, standing erect on a perch, with wings spread in the sun, presumably warming up.

It requires a great deal of effort for the turkey vulture to take flight. It hops on its feet and flaps its wings while pushing off the ground. Once they are in the sky, however, they will stay aloft for hours, gracefully taking advantage of rising thermal air currents. If you spot one, and want to see more, just wait. They tend to travel in groups of six, and when one finds a carcass, they all feed.

The turkey vulture has very few natural predators. It is found in open and semi-open areas throughout the Americas from southern Canada to Cape Horn. The turkey vulture receives special legal protections under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It is illegal to take, kill, or possess turkey vultures, with violations punishable by fines of up to $15,000 and imprisonment of up to six months. Before the 1980s, turkey vultures were threatened by the side effects of the pesticide DDT, but their numbers have increased and now they are among the most common large birds in North America.

About the Author: Marcia is the bed bug and vector management specialist for the Pesticides Program in Edison. She has a BS in Biology from Monmouth, second degree in Environmental Design-Landscape Architecture from Rutgers, Masters in Instruction and Curriculum from Kean, and is a PhD in Environmental Management candidate from Montclair – specializing in Integrated Pest Management and Environmental Communications. Prior to EPA, and concurrently, she has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology and Oceanography at Kean University for 14 years.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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