Friday, May 8, 2009

Vulture Adventure

Today I decided to make a trip to our farm in Fillmore,MO. My husband wanted to finish planting corn. When we got to the farm my father-in-law and my brother-in-law, Tony were there. Tony told me he had just discovered a vulture inside a tree right before we got there.
I asked him to show me where, we walked a few hundred feet into the timber to a hollow tree (pictured). I was able to look inside the hollow tree, the opening is only about 5 feet off the ground. Inside the first thing I spotted was a raccoon carcass (picture 2). We knew this past winter several raccoons in the area had died of distemper. We assume this was one of those raccoons. After noticing the raccoon, further back in the tree you could see the vulture sitting there. I presumed she (or he) was sitting on eggs. I took a few pictures of her, the quality wasn't very good. The light was poor and her position was not conducive to a good photo. I was thrilled to see a vulture this close though. Vultures have long been one of my favorite birds. Many people find them repulsive, I guess this comes from their eating habits. I know carrion is no ones favorite food choice. Fortunately for us these large birds not only love it, but seem to exist almost completely on this stinky diet. Turkey Vultures were named after their resemblance to the Wild Turkey. Both birds are large, have red heads and dark feathers. The word Vulture comes from the Latin word vulturus which means tearer--this refers to their eating habits. They tear the flesh off the meat they consume. Vultures have keen eyesight and an excellent sense of smell. They can detect the gases coming from dead flesh from great distances. They prefer to eat "fresh carrion". Meaning they will turn their noses (or beaks) up at putrid flesh. Turkey Vultures are the most common vulture in their range. They can be found throughout North and South America. They are very gregarious birds and will congregate in huge communal roosts. Sometimes numbering over 100 birds. In the morning they will disperse and find areas to feed. Breeding for these birds starts in March and usually ends in May. We went back to the tree about 2 hours later and discovered the adult had left and two eggs were there (pictured). The eggs are large, about the size of a goose egg. They are cream colored and covered in spots. You will notice in the photo there is a pile of vomit. The adult regurgitated at some point within the nest cavity. Probably while I was taking it's picture. This is their only form of defense. They have very few enemies, but should someone or something disturb them or their nest they will vomit their last meal towards them. If they happen to hit you with it, the smell will probably make you vomit your own socks up, plus it is reported to sting the skin. It takes about 30 to 40 days for the eggs to hatch and the young are fed by both parents. They regurgitate food into their gaping mouths. The young are also capable of vomiting on you, should you happen to disturb them. These birds are quite large with a 6 foot wingspan and weighing at around 4-6 pounds. They are a common sight soaring high in the sky, using the thermals to reach great heights. They rarely need to flap their wings. These birds are very awkward on the ground, they find it difficult to take flight. Sometimes they must regurgitate part of their meal to leave the ground. Often they are seen on fence posts or trees with their wings outstretched. This is done presumably to 1.)warm themselves 2.) bake bacteria off their bodies or 3.) dry the wings. Turkey Vultures are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act from 1918. I can't imagine anyone wanting to harm these wonderful birds. Ranchers and farmers have long believed that these birds transmit Hog Cholera or anthrax to their livestock. This is not true. The virus is rendered impotent by the time is goes through the vultures system. Vultures are amazing in their ability to digest disease ridden flesh. The diseases are destroyed by the vultures stomach acids and digestive tract. Some ranchers also falsely believe that these birds kill newborn calves. They do not, instead it is their close relative the Black Vulture who is responsible for this. Turkey Vultures will hang with Black Vultures and feed on the leftovers. They do not kill calves or anything else. Occasionally they will feed on vegetation; such as pumpkins, plant matter, and invertebrates. Rarely, if ever would they kill for their meal. Some people say they have a face only a mother could love, hideously ugly is a common phrase uttered when talking about these birds. Their heads are featherless for a reason. Can you imagine if they had feathers on their head, and stuck their head inside a rotting roadkill? Their feathers would become impacted with blood and flesh and bacteria. The lack of feathers helps them stay cleaner and healthier. Another gross habit these birds have is to urinate on their legs. This urine is high in acids and aids in killing any bacteria that may remain on their legs from feeding. It also aids in cooling them in hot weather. It works as a form of perspiration. I look forward each year to the return of these large birds. The site of them soaring high in the sky so effortlessly and gracefully brings a smile to my face. For me it means spring has finally arrived. If you would like to learn more about these amazing birds visit Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery in Branson, Missouri. Each February they host a special event called "Vulture Venture" This event showcases a live vulture, games, and information about these birds. Each year the Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures congregate at the hatchery during their northward migration. There will be hundreds of them there for a short few weeks. It is worth the trip to see this phenomena. We went a few years ago and could not believe how many vultures were there. Hundreds of them roosting in the trees. While they may not have the stature of the Bald Eagle or the cuteness of the Chick-a-dee or the beauty of any number of other birds, they are glorious in their own way. If nothing else they should be respected for the garbage disposal they provide.

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