Natural perspective - Return of the vultures

March 14, 2018 — Signs of spring abound: daffodils, budding trees, birds singing. However, one harbinger of spring that tends to go unnoticed is the return of the turkey vultures, or “turkey buzzards” as they’re sometimes known.

Overlooking their return is probably due to most folks not noticing they ever left. Unlike the habits of the more aesthetically pleasing backyard songbirds, seasonal changes in the vultures’ presence are less attention-grabbing.

If you do keep track of vultures, you will find they are only present in Oregon through their breeding season in the spring and summer.

In the fall, they migrate in flocks called “kettles” as they travel impressive distances to Central and South America where they overwinter before returning northward.

With black feathers and bald, red heads, turkey vultures may not be the most attractive birds, and their role as scavengers of dead animals contributes to their image problem.

Although much maligned, their scavenging practices serve an important ecosystem role: by consuming rotting carcasses, vultures clean the landscape and help prevent the spread of disease. Indeed, their role as environmental purifiers is reflected in their scientific name, Cathartes aura, which has the same Greek origin as the word “catharsis.”

While our local turkey vulture populations are currently doing fine, some of the world’s vulture species are seriously declining, often due to human activities like the use of poison, and this has been linked to increases in disease transmission.

Vultures have a number of adaptations that help them succeed as scavengers. For example, whereas a feathered head would become matted with gore when reaching into the depths of a juicy carcass, their characteristic bald head can emerge much cleaner.

Vultures’ extremely harsh stomach acids, which kill most ingested bacteria, enable them to eat rotting flesh without becoming ill. While turkey vultures have keen eyesight, it’s their excellent sense of smell that gives them an edge over other scavengers.

Following their noses, vultures use their familiar circling flight pattern to home in on odor plumes rising from rotting carcasses, and they can detect these scents from long distances — possibly miles — away.

So, as you go about your springtime rituals, take a moment to notice the turkey vulture. While we don’t associate our returning vultures with the “prettiness” of spring, and you won’t be seeing Easter greeting cards with vultures perched among the tulips, they are nonetheless integral members of our environment.

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