Indiana’s Own Cuddly Carrion Crow: The Turkey Vulture
Kidding about the cuddly part.
Unless you’re an ornithologist, I’m sure studying turkey vultures (or turkey buzzards in some parts of Indiana) isn’t on your list of priorities. But during the sweltering months of Hoosier summers, you can’t miss these birds, either soaring in lazy, slow circles high above the road…or chowing down on some steamy roadkill. Either way, here’s some a few facts about our common carrion bird that might surprise you…
They fly almost without flapping.
Like most large soaring birds, turkey vultures rely on thermals to provide lift for wings that can stretch six feet in width. Flapping their wings uses a tremendous amount of energy, so they do it as little as possible. Next time you see them soaring above, you’ll notice the flight pattern is almost random, based on the chaos of applied thermodynamics. And turkey vultures have been documented to soar at heights of almost 20,000 feet!
Standing with their wings open isn’t as threatening as it looks.
It might seem like a threat display, but the “wings spread” stance of turkey vultures serves other purposes. It’s commonly seen after rainy, humid nights, and the vultures spread their wings to dry the damp feathers. Sunlight also helps kill dangerous bacteria that becomes imbedded in the feathers. It’s also common for the vulture to urinate on its legs in this stance, with the urine both cooling and cleaning the skin. Eww.
It’s got a hell of a defense mechanism.
When threatened, the turkey vulture will hiss, grunt and then…puke. It will literally spit the contents of its stomach at a threat, and the mushy mess is so foul-smelling that the turkey vulture has almost no natural predators. If a threat gets close enough, the turkey vulture spits into the face or eyes. The stomach acid in a vulture is unusually strong, with a ph of 1 or 2, strong enough to burn the skin or temporarily blind a creature (Similar to the attack on Dennis Nedry in ‘Jurassic Park’). Turkey vulture fecal matter is extremely acidic and can kill vegetation or even trees.
They are stellar smellers.
Turkey vultures have the largest smelling system of any bird (also called the olfactory system). They can smell carrion just beginning to rot over a mile away. That might seem disgusting to humans, but to turkey vultures, that smells like a cheeseburger. Contrary to most beliefs, they only eat meat JUST beginning to rot. Once putrefaction sets in, turkey vultures don’t want the food either.
They might not be pretty, but they’re not killers.
Turkey vultures rarely if ever kill prey, but only wait and watch to find dead or dying prey. Their beaks and feet aren’t built for battle but rather for tearing open already-dead flesh and shoving their heads inside (hence the bald head, like most large scavenging birds). They have been known to hasten the death of wounded or weakened prey…which is not a pretty sight.
They don’t make good pets.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1916 protects the turkey vulture since it’s a migratory species for most of Indiana (although it might stay year round in some parts of southern Indiana). It can only be kept in captivity if it’s too disabled to return to the wild and violations can cost up to $10,000 and six months in prison.