Monday, February 22, 2010

They're Baaaack!

It's a wake!  And it's a sure sign of spring!  Their timing has always been superb.  Their reputation, though, is mixed.  Some associate them with death.  Others assign a predator label to them, accusing them of killing small animals for food which, for the most part, they don't do).  On the whole, they are not destructive, but instead, are nature's clean-up crew, eating leftovers--carrion and roadkills, and minding their own business as the janitors of our environment.

Locally, here in the U. S. we often call them buzzards.  More correctly ascribed is the term, "vulture."  Interestingly, my blogger friend, Ruta of Ruta's Ramblings who lives in North Devon UK had a photo in her blog of what she called a "buzzard" and which to me, clearly was a "hawk."  It seems that in the UK, what we over here call "raptors" are called buzzards, whereas in the U. S. "buzzards" are not raptors, but vultures.  Have I got you confused yet?!  If you want comparative information, go to the following websites:

Common Buzzard  and  Vultures 

I think humans find these birds somewhat repugnant.  In fact, they do look...well....ugly--even "spooky"--with their naked heads and prominent beaks.  But, they are an engineering marvel! Their featherless heads enable the birds to delve deep into a carcass without loading up a feathered surface with offal,thus giving them the opportunity to stay relatively clean.  Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures share the same territory here just off the one-lane road, and they often search for food (in a "scents") together, each using its primary search tools:  Turkey Vultures have an exceptional sense of smell whereas the Black Vulture rely more on their keen eyesight.  The two species often share if the food source is large enough.  The Turkey Vulture often can smell a meal even it if is buried and vultures' long sharp claws are perfectly capable of unearthing the object of the search.  I heard of one instance where a boat-owner in the south had had the leather seats ripped apart by a group of vultures...that's how long the scent was attractive to these birds.

Vultures don't flock.  A few will "hang out" together, though, and such a group is called a "wake" or a "committee."  They do not build nests.  Rather they lay their eggs in a hollow tree, or even in a protected spot on the ground.  From Wikipedia, "Vulture stomach acid is exceptionally corrosive, allowing them to safely digest putrid carcasses infected with Botulinum toxin, hog cholera, and anthrax bacteria that would be lethal to other scavengers.  This also enables them to use their reeking, corrosive vomit as a defensive projectile when threatened.  Vultures urinate straight down their legs; the uric acid kills bacteria accumulated from walking through carcasses, and also acts as an evaporative cooling mechanism."  

To me, this is simply fascinating as these birds are DESIGNED to be "kings (and queens) of the road(kills)!

By now, though, I know you're saying, "Eeeewwwww!"  But both Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures are pure joy to observe as they soar and wheel high above our heads, finding thermals and gliding over us all summer long, searching for leftovers:  the dead 'possum, or 'coon, or deer.  As farmers we probably have dreaded their presence at one time or another for it can signal a tragedy.  When we kept sheep, a "wake" of vultures was a harbinger of loss.

Vultures are so efficient in their clean-up!  There is little left after they have done their work.  The bones are picked clean and whatever is left is ready for the rodents to take over, making use of the vitamins and minerals in the bones.

Late in the fall, when indications are that winter is setting in, the vultures take to the skies and "migrate" a rather short distance south, to avoid the worst of the weather.  But they are usually among the first birds to return.

Yesterday, I caught sight of two vultures, soaring just above the pines in the East Pasture.  They are a sign for winter-sore eyes!  So, today, I celebrate their return!  Spring cannot be far away!


  1. We don't have any vulture type birds in Britain but there are 10 species of birds of prey. The buzzard (wingspan 60") is very common around here,they feed on road kill, rabbits and worms and beetles and may feed on dead sheep. Locally we also have sparrowhawks, much smaller and not liked as they kill garden birds. Roadkill is usually cleaned up by magpies and crows. Magpies will also take small birds and chicks from the nest.

  2. Chris: A wake of vultures, i love it. the ones photographed must be drying their wings from a rain just before the shot. like the chimney sweeps say, it's a dirty job but somebody has got to do it.
    someday tell us about a murder of crows.

  3. Great suggestion, Chris, on "Murder" of Crows. They are such interesting critters. Probably no other bird has set my ire afire as much as those wily things! I especially dislike their noisy swarms, when they are usually after a nesting or resting raptor of one kind or another. Sometimes it's the Great Horned Owl; more often it's a hawk of some kind. I'll work on the idea for a later post. Thanks much for your comment and the suggestion!


  4. Thanks for your comment, Ruta! A sixty-inch wingspan is considerable! What a bird! Your sparrowhawk sounds like our Sharp-Shinned Hawk. Check out Old Otter Holler blog for Thomas's experience the other morning with an invading raptor of one kind or another--unwelcome at the birdfeeder!

    Go to:
    and look for Thomas's post on Bird Houses.

    Thanks much for your comments, Ruta!

  5. Here on the lake we have turkey buzzards that come in the spring. They dive for fish and sometimes create havoc because they can spear a fish but it gets away, only to develop infections and die from the cut later. But that's nature's way I suppose. They don't stay long and I'm glad but, like you, I celebrate the signs of spring that I'm seeing. blessings, marlene