They’re big. They teeter- totter on open wings, rising up on thermals, swooping low across the landscape before disappearing as specks on the horizon. Vultures are evident in the sky right now as they make their way south for winter, their "V" shaped profiles tilting in the breeze. They hang out in tall trees at night. In the morning, they open their wings and soak up the sun. They’re harmless and yet scary to some people. The Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura, is a creature of lore, often depicted in old west movies as a shrieking bird that circles the dying cowboy and starts picking at the victim as he lays there hopelessly. Not likely to happen. They are not attracted to living humans and will not swoop down and attack you, nor do they shriek or cry out. Rather, they are mostly silent but will hiss at each other or any perceived threats.
“Cathartes” means purifier. The vulture’s main diet is dead meat from mammals of all sizes. They clean the landscape of unsightly carcasses and do us a great service. They’ve evolved to have featherless heads, much better to poke around in rotting flesh, and have been known to vomit on animals when they feel threatened. Nothing like vulture vomit to scare you away!
In the early 90’s, I was involved in a turkey vulture survey in Apple Valley, along the Mojave River. We got there after sunrise and watched as the birds sat in the trees with open wings in what is known as the “horaltic" pose. It’s their way of warming up, drying their wings and sanitizing their feathers. From this stance, they wait for the warm air to start rising. Turkey vultures depend less on flapping their wings and instead, use the thermals to gain altitude by circling ever higher until they gain a desired altitude and begin flying off one or two at a time. The large group of circling birds are known as kettles. If you look closely, you may get a glimpse of a Swainson’s hawk hitchhiking with the vultures. They are lighter in color and unlike the vultures, the leading edge of the wing is light with the darker edge toward the wingtips. We have conserved a great deal of land in Portal Ridge to support Swainson’s hawks, who were listed as a threatened species in 1983, due to habitat loss. If you see one, consider it a rare and wonderful bonus.
During that turkey vulture survey, each of us would identify a specific "kettle" as it rose skyward, then start counting as the birds broke off one by one. Sometimes there were four or five kettles rising at once, so the person with the clipboard had to quickly write down the numbers as each observer sounded off their final tally, “25!”, “32!”, “15!” The peak of the survey was intense as we tried to capture every kettle and not miss any or double count them. At the end of the morning, as many as 2500 birds would be logged in for that day. Ten thousand birds in a season would not be unheard of.
Beginning now, you will see vultures dotting the sky as they begin their migration south. From late September through late October, the larger groups will come through and if you have tall trees in your neighborhood, you will likely see them hanging out for the night. I have seen groups of a dozen or more vultures clinging to the top of Joshua trees. They are common throughout our state and can be seen in all of our project areas. - W.Walker
A great video showing turkey vultures in flight.