If you were to ever invite a turkey vulture to dinner, it’d be a long, drawn out, rather repelling affair:

The meal would begin by not beginning, as turkey vultures don’t have very sharp beaks and therefore need to wait for other scavengers such as eagles or ravens to tear into their chosen carcass first.

However, perhaps this is for the best and you should take the opportunity for conversation while you can, as once the softer meat is laid bare, they won’t be able to hear you very well, as turkey vultures spend a large amount of time with their bald, red heads thrust into the bowels of their meal (it’s thought that they evolved to be bald in order to keep clean while doing this (at least that’s what they’ll tell you)).

Turkey vultures are not picky dinner guests at all, if we’re not using the word literally. They will eat absolutely anything that is much too rotten or far gone for anyone else to even think about. You’ll save yourself a fair amount of money by simply scooping up a roadkill on your way home. Their extremely strong digestive enzymes will break down any botulism, cholera, or other bacteria that exist, so you won’t have to worry about them catching any food poisoning from the meal, which could threaten your fabulous dinner-party reputation. Just don’t startle them, as you might kick off their defense mechanism, which is regurgitating their food into a putrid mess that will most certainly end the dinner party forthwith and start up a flurry of rumours that could bring your parties to a grinding halt.

After the meal is spent, mere hours or days later, it’s best to usher them straight out the door as they will proceed to then urinate on their legs and therefore all over the dining room and dining room table, as they no doubt have been stalking back and forth all over it, standing in or on their meal. They will insist their reasons for doing this are that they’re feeling hot and want to cool down, or that strong acids in the urine kill any bacteria that is left on their legs from their meal. On second thought, it might be a good idea to let them urinate inside in order to kill off any bacteria that’s left on the dining room table as well.  

Although this may not sound like your ideal dinner party, not to worry; turkey vultures spend half their time migrating down to Venezuela and back, so you won’t have to host them year-round.

A comical introduction to a species that is, most certainly, a welcome guest in all the ecosystems they visit

A Turkey Vulture sunning itself on a warm spring day. Taken by Miguel Loeza, on SKTAK/Mayne Island.

The Arrival

When winter begins to ebb on the islands and there’s the sweet scent of cottonwood in the air, the sight of turkey vultures calmly and gracefully navigating the air currents is a sure sign that spring has arrived.

After the morning sun has warmed the air enough to create spirals of thermal heat, turkey vultures lift off from their perch and ride the currents up into the sky until they are circling high above land and sea. Holding their wings rigid, they can glide for hours, relying upon their keen eyesight and strong sense of smell to lead them to their next meal. They eat a large variety of carrion, being adept at surviving in a number of different ecosystems, from tropical forests to sandstone beaches. Supplementing their diet with shoreline vegetation and gourd crops, vultures have been found to prefer mammals, but will eat reptiles, invertebrates, and marine life as well.  

The Aperitif

Once a carcass has decayed enough or been opened up by other scavengers, turkey vultures gather around and enjoy the feast. They are easily startled and wary animals and when approached by humans take off in heavy flight to a higher perch where they sit, blinking at you and waiting for your retreat. Sometimes you’ll see them standing sentry with their wings spread wide, which is thought to be their way of regulating body heat or using the sun’s rays to bake off bacteria left over from their meal.

The Digestif

There are few other animals who can stomach rancid meat the way that turkey vultures can. Scavengers by nature, turkey vultures don’t hunt live prey. Equipped with special enzymes that break down even the hardiest bacteria in their meal, turkey vultures are immune to botulism, anthrax, salmonella and cholera, and their eating habits help staunch the spread of diseases and viruses in the ecosystem that a rotting carcas could introduce. Filling an important ecological niche, they pick their meal down to the bare white bone, ensuring that those hot summer days aren’t heavily scented with the smell of decaying flesh. Often viewed as omens of death and decay, turkey vultures should instead be credited as symbols of rejuvenation, recycling, and cleanliness! In fact, the scientific name of these highly resourceful birds is Carthartes aura, and ‘Cathartes’ means ‘purifier’ in Latin.

Turkey Vulture, taken by Toby Snelgrove.

The Lifestyle

After a long commute from South America, turkey vultures return to their northern haunts to breed for the summertime. From the south coast of B.C. inland to the Caribou and Chilcotin, they tend to colonize river valleys and ocean fronts, with breeding pairs being abundant on Southern Vancouver Island and the Southern Gulf Islands.

Generally nesting in crevices, cliff sides, abandoned heron or hawk nests, and abandoned buildings, the females lay one to three eggs and the pair raise their young over a period of about two and half months. The babies are hatched with fuzzy grey feathers and black bald heads, and they make a soft hissing sound when disturbed. If you happen to come across a pair of nesting vultures, it’s best to step away as soon as you can – not because these birds are inclined to attack, but because you don’t want to be too close to them when they deploy their defense mechanism. Unlike other animals that use spitting or regurgitation as a defense (camels and alpacas, for example), turkey vultures don’t need to use projectile force when warning away predators. The stench of their regurgitated meal usually does the trick, and if any of the flotsam does happen to get into a prying eye, the sting of the digestive enzymes should be enough to deter the intruder!

The Departure

At the end of the summertime, young turkey vultures are ready to take part in the species migration and join their elders in what’s known as a “kettle” – a large grouping of vultures circling high on the thermals, seeking out an opportunity to begin their migration south. If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of this incredible sight, head to the city of Victoria in October – hundreds of turkey vultures can be seen kettling on the thermals above the downtown core, preparing to take off over the strait and begin their long flight back down south for the winter.

Turkey vultures have an incredible sense of smell – a rarity in birds. Photo by Miguel Loeza, taken on SKTAK/Mayne Island.

Turkey vultures, like other raptors, are affected by poisons and bioaccumulation of chemicals. Carcasses of deer, for example, that were killed using lead shot can be harmful to turkey vultures, and much like eagles and other raptors, vultures were affected by the presence of DDT in their food. Avoid the use of pesticides or chemicals on your property to help ensure that bioaccumulation isn’t a risk for any animals that share the land with you.

Categories: BirdsMayne Wildlife


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