Time to Appreciate the Unappreciated: Turkey Vultures

Turkey vultures soar on seven foot wingspans and perform a valuable service to our environment. Photo provided by author

“Jeez, that’s nasty,” I said to myself, quickly turning my head after getting a whiff of something rotten. I had stopped to check the conditions of the Wildcat Creek. This summer’s persistent rains have made fishing conditions a roller coaster in terms of water that doesn’t resemble chocolate milk.

Turning to walk away the source of the stench became apparent. Not far off the road laid a dead deer, bloated by the warm sun. It obviously met its demise after a run in with a hapless driver.

Passing by a few hours later the cleaning crew had already gathered. Turkey vultures. They look graceful soaring high overhead gliding on seven foot wingspans. Then you get a close up view. Most people consider them repugnant, but thankfully they are gross for a reason. When you think about it, birds are woven into the very fabric of our lives. We eat them, poems and songs are written about them, paintings are drawn and photographs taken – except for buzzards. They are the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the avian world and don’t get the respect they deserve.

Our other avian friends have the ability to inspire humans on many levels. Unfortunately these birds do not, even though they provide a huge service to our natural world. Normally associated with death and gloom, turkey vultures play an important role as the sanitation engineers of our environment, yet they remain overlooked, underappreciated and in some cases, despised.

Indiana is home to two species of vultures. The most prevalent and widespread are turkey vultures. They inhabit every Indiana county and are often seen circling high overhead . Black vultures are more common to southern Indiana and are rarely seen past the center of the state.

Up close they sure wouldn’t win any beauty contests but when soaring high in the sky riding the thermals they are a symbol of grace and beauty. They can soar for hours without flapping their wings. They leave their perch after the morning air has warmed and circle upwards searching for warm air pockets that carry them hundreds of feet up in rising circles.

Technically these large birds are scavengers and stick their featherless head in places that we wouldn’t even think of, like the gut of a rotting carcass. Their red, bald head helps them stay clean and from a distance may resemble a wild turkey, which is how they originally got their name. Powerful stomach acids permit them to digest animals corpses infected with botulism, cholera and anthrax, bacteria that would kill other scavengers.

Soaring high overhead they can spot carrion, (dead animals) from a mile away. Interestingly, a group of vultures perched in a tree is called a wake. How fitting is that? When threatened, they vomit their stomach contents and as you can imagine what an effective defense.

In spite of their looks and habits, vultures are an integral part of our ecosystem. Consider them nature’s recyclers. They maintain the delicate balance between life and death.

So the next time you see vultures hovered around a dead roadkill or soaring high in the sky, consider them a valuable asset to our natural world and maybe give them a soft “thanks” for an important job only they can do.

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John Martino
Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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