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On Turkey Vultures

turkey vulture

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
Courtesy National Park Service /Brad Sutton

by Tracie Hornung

I watched the turkey vulture swerve and bank above the highway, and thought of my friend who cringed when I recently mentioned the species. I had forgotten, until then, that her reaction is quite common.

I imagine it’s that bald red head, looking as if it had just emerged from the bloodied mass of a carcass. (It may have.) Or the silhouette against the sky of sharp wings that appear torn and scraggly. A living, breathing, soaring symbol of death and decay.

But I was surprised when I got to know a couple of turkey vulture teenagers at Rowena Wildlife Clinic. It’s true -– up close they still aren’t beautiful. But the first time I encountered them, I was touched to realize they were shy and not the slightest bit aggressive. In fact, they scampered away as I brought their meal of dead rodents into their enclosure.

In time, they grew to accept my presence but stayed cautious. That’s their innate personality; raptor experts know them to be gentle, but elusive birds. Their only real defense is to vomit a lump of foul-smelling semi-digested meat, which deters most creatures. Fortunately, the teenage vultures at the rehab clinic were never threatened enough by me to do that, but I’m glad they always remained wary.

Once when my husband and I were driving a narrow road through a forest, I commented how sad it was that all the birds in the area, even those away from the road, immediately flew off. But smart, or course. They were, rightly, just working on surviving.

So whenever I see a turkey vulture soaring in a thermal, I don’t see a symbol of death and decay. I see a bird going about the business of being a bird.

For more about turkey vultures visit Cornell University’s All About Birds website.