The first time I saw a turkey vulture I thought it was an eagle. It soared along a ridge, far too large to be a hawk, elegant and majestic as it rode a thermal nearly out of sight. When my friend said it was a vulture I didn’t believe him.

The first time I heard a turkey vulture it was twilight in Big Sur. The silence of the late afternoon forest was interrupted by a crashing so loud and abrupt that I looked around nervously expecting to see a tree toppling toward me. There was certainly a great deal of agitation in the treetops. Then a vulture – its featherless head identifying it beyond dispute – tumbled out of the uppermost branches. It flapped awkwardly in the confined space, found some small bit of lift, turned a tight circle and flew straight at the same tree – feet forward, extended wings slapping against redwood needles.

This time its claws found purchase on a branch. It tucked in its wings, shook itself, and settled down for the long, windless night. All around it, its brethren were having less luck – if in flight they were sublime in landing they were…not – but after ten more minutes of large birds hurling themselves into redwoods the forest was silent again.

Some Things I Didn’t Know About Vultures (courtesy of Wikipedia)

  • There are an unusually large number of things to call them when they congregate. A group of flying vultures is a kettle. Vultures resting in trees are a committee, a volt, or a venue. Feeding vultures are referred to, appropriately, as a wake.
  • It has been commonly thought (by me, too) that vultures had featherless heads to help keep them clean while feeding. Scientists have more recently come to believe that the lack of plumage actually plays some kind of thermoregulative role.
  • Vultures have unusually corrosive stomach acid, which lets them safely digest the remains of animals infected with botulism, cholera and anthrax. They also urinate straight down their legs, allowing the acidity of their urine to kill any bacteria picked up while walking through carcasses.
  • Turkey vultures in particular have a phenomenal sense of smell – unusual among raptors, who generally use sight and hearing to locate their prey. Condors, who do not share their gift, actually follow turkey vultures to the site of a carcass. In one of those symbiotic twists nature so abundantly provides the condors then proceed to eat first, both because they are larger and because the turkey vulture lacks a beak powerful enough to tear into a tough hide.

Turkey vultures are a common sight in the neighborhood. They congregate wherever the hawks leave behind half eaten prey, or a careless or surprised driver hits a squirrel or a cat or a deer. They gather in substantial numbers even for something as small as a woodpecker – judging from their territorial behavior, to help each other fend off the crows who would happily rob them of their meal. When I first moved to Atascadero my stomach turned a little whenever I passed them tearing at the flesh of a lifeless animal, their red faces smeared a darker crimson.

But after a while I started moving the inevitable carcasses I stumbled across in the yard out to the periphery of the property, where the shy vultures were more likely to feed. It certainly seemed better than putting them in the trash – life out of death, instead of just waste. I can’t say I enjoy watching them eat, but I admire the role they fill in the ecology of things.

I do enjoy watching them when they’re otherwise engaged, gathered in their kettles or volts. They are thermal hunters par excellence, and there is something a little magical about watching a few dozen of them turning lazy circles in a column of air, rising on nearly still wings.

And something primal and shamanistic the morning after a cold or rainy night, out for a casual walk with the dog and coming upon half a dozen vultures perched silent and motionless at the tops of leafless trees, faces turned toward the east and wings spread wide like thunderbirds descended from the heavens. Waiting for the sun to warm both them and the Earth, to take to the air and its invisible currents. Soaring in search of death and then descending like primeval priests, delivering their clear-eyed and pitiless last rites.