Give thanks for turkey vultures

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Come late November, most of us have turkeys on the brain. But a different type of turkey is taking to the skies at this time of year on its annual migration south: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). You can spot them in the sky or on the ground in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

These large, carrion-consuming birds can be seen in clear, open sky riding thermals with raptors in the fall. Their distinctive, teetering flight is punctuated by the V shape their wings create. They have a larger profile than, say, red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) when soaring and seem to have long fingers at their wingtips and tails that extend past their toes. While they do appear black from a distance, if you get a closer look you’ll notice their bodies are composed of dark brown feathers and their nearly featherless heads are a stunning blood red.

You can get a close-up view when turkey vultures glide low to sniff out their favorite food: dead animals. The keen sense of smell they employ to find lunch sets them apart from many birds, and they’re often seen huddled on the ground in small groups around roadkill and other carrion. Turkey vultures have refined tastes, though, and won’t eat just any dead thing lying around. They prefer freshly dead mammals and know to eat the softest bits first and leave the unsavory parts like skunk scent glands.

As if their meal preference wasn’t gross enough, turkey vultures sport some disgusting defense and survival strategies. They’ve been known to defecate on their legs to cool themselves off. The strong acids in their urine kill bacteria that inevitably accumulate on their feet given their cuisine of choice. Additionally, they will vomit partially digested meat, which smells foul enough to deter potential predators away from themselves and their nests.

After reading about its habits, you may or may not be happy to hear that the number of turkey vultures in Illinois is on the rise. According to Illinois Natural History Survey breeding bird surveys, overall populations have increased and moved steadily north nationally for decades.

Scientists believe the construction of more heat-reflecting surfaces, such as roads and parking lots, are one reason for the rise, since these surfaces create the thermals that turkey vultures use. And along with more people and development come more cars and naturally more roadkill, which invites more turkey vultures to the table.

As we gather around our tables this holiday season, having more turkey vultures in the area is something we can be thankful for. They do a tremendous job of cleaning up the detritus and debris of the natural world. That ecological niche is incredibly important.

One of the best places to view these massive and amazing creatures in Lake County before they head south is along the newly opened Birding Trail Loop at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest.

Tag along on our Sunrise Stroll at Fort Sheridan on December 21, 7–8:30 am. Greet the day with a peaceful walk while watching the sun rise over Lake Michigan. FREE. No registration required. Adults. Out of respect for all participants, please leave pets at home. Service animals are permitted.

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