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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Turkey vulture in the tunnel

As my daughter, Brie, (visiting from Vancouver) and I drove toward Silva Bay Sunday afternoon, we spied a BIG bird on a branch hanging out over the tunnel. The sighting necessitated a stop, a turn-around, and a disembark. Luckily, we had Brie’s Canon with the zoom lens with us so she was able to get some pretty good shots of the bird, which turned out not to be a big owl as I had initially guessed as we drove by, but a turkey vulture! I have seen a vulture perched only one other time, in Mexico, so was enthralled looking at his very ‘unusual’ (many would say ugly) bare-skinned face that is, indeed, reminiscent of a turkey.

Turkey vulture in the tunnel. Photo by Brie McInnes.

Even though its face is one that only its mother would love, the turkey vulture (cathartes aura) has other important redeeming qualities. It is graceful in flight as it soars on wind currents, rarely flapping those long wings. And do you know what it's doing as it soars the skies? Sniffing out carrion. Unlike almost all other birds, the turkey vulture has a highly developed sense of smell that allows it to smell dead animals on the floor of the forest. This under-appreciated bird, garbage-eater extraordinaire, cleans the forest of dead mammals and invertebrates, helping to keep the ecology in balance. Seems fitting that its Latin species name is cathartes, meaning ‘purifier’.

Sometimes it can be challenging to tell a turkey vulture from an eagle as they soar overhead. Here are three clues: 1) The turkey vulture holds its wings tilted up just a little, forming a slight V-shape. 2) The turkey vulture teeters from side to side when flying at low altitudes.  3) The turkey vulture's outer underwings are lighter in colour, sometimes looking white, grey, or even silver in the sunlight.

The turkey vulture does have one habit that’s a bit of a turn off, though: it defecates on its own legs in order to cool down. Well, I guess you do what ya gotta do ...


nick said...

A story I heard a while ago, and I don't know if it's true, is that to detect leaks in a long-distance natural gas transmission pipeline, the operators added to the gas a slight smell of rotting meat. They could then locate the source of a leak by watching for vultures. What astounded the designers when they tried it out was how tiny was the quantity of smelly gas that was needed. Just a whiff was detected by birds seemingly from miles around. Nobody else took any notice.

Sharon said...

Thanks Nick. I hadn't heard this story.