When out in the sage, mountains, grasslands, or other wild places; you may notice large birds circling far overhead. Most folks would probably think that they were seeing some form of hawk. But the more likely scenario is that a most important scavenger is riding the thermals – the Turkey Vulture – a bird that feeds mainly on carrion and refuse.
This is a large bird (27”), larger even than our Red-Tailed Hawk. High in the air or at a distance, it has somewhat of a resemblance to an eagle. It has a black body, white beak, and a fiery red head. When in flight it holds its wings upward in a shallow V, with the wing-tip feathers spread like fingers. When in the air, the silvery wing under-sides are visible. Vultures roost in large trees and even on tall structures. Because they depend on riding thermals, they don’t leave their roost until the sun has heated the air.
The red head is devoid of feathers. This is a sanitation adaptation. It must stick its head into rotting carcasses and the baldness prevents “goo” from accumulating on the feathers. The suns rays are then able to shine on the skin, playing a disinfecting role. Also, their beak is not strong enough to tear open the hide. They must wait for the animal to rot or another scavenger to rip it open. However, their tongue is “rasp-like” and this aids in removing bits of flesh from inside the carcass.
Vultures are widespread over our continent, and though many people would find these birds to be ugly and possibly disgusting, they have an extremely vital niche. They rid the countryside of dead animals, thus, keeping the environment clean.
While not my favorite bird, I still find this species most interesting and easy to appreciate.