It's ugly and has a horrible diet: Soaring with turkey vultures

Look for white feathers along the back edge of each wing to determine if it’s a turkey vulture in the air. Their wings are made for soaring over open areas of the Uncompahgre Valley, Black Canyon and upper elevations of western Colorado.

Tell me about an animal you think is ugly and I’ll tell you about the turkey vulture. Tell me of an animal that has a horrible diet and I’ll talk of the turkey vulture. Describe for me an animal that has been defamed for centuries and I’ll share my encounters with the turkey vulture.

I think that we sometimes rush to judgement when we create a measuring stick of values for life on our planet. There are cuddly animals and there are. . . well, you don’t need me to fill in the details of that measuring stick. Yet, here is a bird that makes flying look effortless as it soars high into the sky, and in doing so offers us a stick to measure our human world.

Turkey vultures are remarkable creatures, and they have adapted some unusual tactics to achieve lofty elevations. When we rangers talk to the public about a soaring bird they saw in the sky, they are sometimes reluctant to agree that they saw a. . . buzzard. People hope they observed an eagle, or perhaps a falcon, maybe a hawk, but a turkey vulture — eww.

The study and science of Cathartes aura (turkey vulture) is rich in understanding basic adaptations to flight that show they are masters of the skill. Here, we can find the means to admire an animal that is low on the human-endearment list.

Summer days, like the kind we’ve been enjoying, create thermal updrafts as the sun bears down on the land. These thermals vary in location because landforms (mountainsides, canyons, slopes, different soils and rock) vary. This causes uneven heating.

Morning turns to afternoon and the upsurge in temperature causes a rotating current of air. These spiraling currents are perfect for turkey vultures to soar against the fairly compelling power of gravity.

Unlike other large birds in the sky, vultures do not have large sternums and formidable pectoral muscles. Their wings are long (six feet or more) and narrow. The wingtip feathers are slotted. The configuration helps in setting up a positive lift-to-drag ratio as they circle within the thermal current.

They are also lightweight. For every .04 ounces of weight, their wings have about .28 square inches of surface. A golden eagle has about .20 square inches of surface for the same body weight. It takes a stronger current of air to lift an eagle into the sky.

These factors mean that the turkey vulture is able to sustain an ascending flight pattern longer and higher because it doesn’t have to flap its wings as often to stay aloft.

So what do they do with this ability? For starters, they are checking up on a possible meal. Unless you have given up the ghost out there in the wilds, vultures are not interested in you. There isn’t complete agreement among scientists if the birds primarily use the sense of smell or keen eyesight to search for carrion. Most agree that they rely on a combination of both.

This trait of flight is important for other activities along with the quest for a meal. Vultures are communal and they communicate through the visual sense of soaring. Family members will gather within a thermal updraft in an activity called kettling.

Imagine the way a kettle of boiling water looks. The birds rise and drop within the thermal, circulating in ever-dynamic patterns in the same way bubbles mix and float in a boiling pot.

Turkey vultures share information of a large food source in this manner. Kettling is a call to gather into the community at days end before roosting in trees or on cliffs. Kettling is a means of beckoning a flock to assemble for migration in the fall.

And they can soar high. Pilots have seen them at altitudes of 20,000 feet. There are maybe only a dozen species of birds, worldwide, that will fly higher than that.

Soaring is part of a healthy rhythm of life for these birds. It places them in community. I watch these birds regularly as they float above the cliffs of Black Canyon on warm rising air. I think of their community, as they reach new heights, and I think of the aspirations we have for our community.

I believe we are at our best, when like turkey vultures, we seek to care more about others than we care about ourselves. When we reach out, while soaring to new heights, we bring everyone else along. When we see ourselves as part of a community, we are at our best.

Tell me about what’s wrong with our world, and I’ll tell you about turkey vultures.

Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Load comments