Archive for September, 2010

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A Time For Turkey Vultures

September 3, 2010

In the same vein as last week’s offering, I’d like to expound stream-of-consciousness-style on the topic of Turkey Vultures.

Tomorrow, September 4th, is the Tour De Fat (TDF) in Fort Collins, an increasingly popular bike parade put on by the increasingly popular New Belgium Brewery. In it virtually all the riders wear costumes or other unusual adornments, thereby making it a spectacle to behold. Now, it also happens to be International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD), which is a very recent addition to the calendar initially created a couple years ago for the preservation of threatened Old World Vulturine birds. The stars were thus aligned, and all I needed was a reason to conjoin these two disparate occasions.

I learned of an outrage in Sterling Colorado last July, where some cowardly stain on the human race decided to shoot Turkey Vultures there on three successive days and thus have three individuals sent to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (RMRP) to remove the shot and undergo chelation treatment to ease the lead poisoning. Maybe I was in a vulnerable moment – I have a lot of those lately it seems – but because of my interest in conservation and humane treatment of animal life, I am put on edge when I hear stories like the above, and something in me then clicked when I learned of the congruence of IVAD and TDF. Like the cosmic pas de deux of a solar eclipse, I realized that this was an opportunity to both participate in TDF as I had always wanted, and to do so serving a higher purpose – communicating the greatness of birds and in this specific case, Turkey Vultures. TuVus lack a syrinx and therefore are unable to speak for themselves in Northern Colorado – but you can bet your ass that I’ll be there to speak up for them tomorrow, in front of thousands of people in a way no one has ever seen before. I will be dressed up as a Turkey Vulture and ride in the parade along with 3 other similarly-bedecked companions, spreading the good word about TuVus as we make sure that at least in Fort Collins, these birds will continue to have a safe place to roost and forage every year.

So what is it with me and Turkey Vultures? When I first brought up my desire to participate in the TDF at a rounds meeting several weeks ago, I think people got the impression that I was a longstanding vulture afficionado, and that like some people I know, they were really my “thing”. It’s reasonable to think that, although I wouldn’t characterize myself that way, especially now that I know several people who in my estimation are true full-on, hardcore vulture-philes.

For me, my interest and appreciation of vultures stems largely from a couple personal relationships I have with vulture individuals, namely the “Old Male” and “New Male” educational Turkey Vultures at the RMRP. I’ve been a handler for the Old Male for over 5 years now, and the New Male for 3 or 4 (I’ve lost count). Before I handled either of these birds I used to think of Turkey Vultures as rather ugly creatures, much in the same way that the people I greet in public when I am handling will often tell me outright. I’d have thus agreed with them 5 years ago, but now when I hear those words, like say, “My god what an ugly bird!” I actually react in a bit of shock and revulsion. It crosses my mind that if I didn’t have that vulture in my care at that moment, I just might pop that knucklehead, be it man or woman, right in the jaw for saying that, as if they’d addressed that sentiment to a child of mine. Of course, in actuality I show much more restraint than that and merely offer a polite verbal counter to that suggestion. But now you know what I’m really thinking when I am responding so diplomatically.

So what changed between 5 years ago and now? Maybe it was just getting to know these birds not just as representatives of their species, but as individuals with distinct personality (orĀ  bird-onality?) traits. I can assure you that these birds are distinct from one another, and that even if their feet were obscured from view (the Old Male is missing a couple toes from an ancient bout with frostbite) I could tell them apart from a distance based on just their posture and body language. Over time I watched them closely, and noticed them noticing me in kind. I can’t say what it is they notice or remember about me from one time to the next, but the way they cooperate with me, respond to my voice and actions, and offer me those charmingly quizzical looks, suggests to me that their vulture minds are just as active and curious as my human one. I find myself simultaneously enchanted with both the things I know intellectually, abstractly about TuVus in general, and with these particular birds with their droll characters. Whatever ugliness they have has become invisible to me. The smell of their barf, well, that’s another matter, but in no way do I see anything hideous in these creatures anymore.

Turkey Vulture, in Key West, Florida, 16 December 2005.

A few taxonomic and natural history notes: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are members of the rather small avian family known as Cathartidae. This strictly New World family also includes the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), commonly seen in the southeastern US and in southern Arizona, as well as the condors, the endangered California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and the South American specialty Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). There is also the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), a strikingly plumaged and strictly tropical species, and two other less well-known close cousins of the Turkey Vulture, the Greater and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures (Cathartes melambrotus and Cathartes burrovianus respectively). Greater and Lesser Yellow-heads are in fact so similar to Turkey Vultures structurally that you really need to get a decent close-up view of their heads in order to tell the difference. You will only find the Yellow-heads in the tropics and subtropics however. For example, I had the pleasure of seeing a number of Greater Yellow-heads in the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru back in 2005.

All the Cathartes vultures possess extraordinary olfactory powers, and experiments have shown them capable of locating hidden carrion from miles away. The other vultures are not thought to have as much ability in this department, and instead probably rely more on visual location or just looking for where the Turkey and Yellow-headed Vultures are going to find food.

On a naming note, local naturalist Kevin Cook has said the Cathartids should commonly be referred to collectively just as “condors,” to distinguish them from the Old World Vultures. Confusingly, the birds we call “vultures” here in the states include both the Cathartids and the Old World Vultures, with the latter being closely related to hawks and eagles and are thus Accipitrids. In the Old World, Accipitrids are sometimes referred to in the common vernacular as “buzzards”, which here in the US is a term applied to, yes, vultures. Clear as mud, yes?

But anyway, back to Turkey Vultures and Tour De Fat. I hope to have some photos to post in the coming days of my costume and participation in what I’ve christened Tour De Vulture. I don’t know if this will be an annual phenomenon, although I hope it will. During my travels next year, I hope to photograph all the aforementioned Cathartids, and help further the enlightenment of the world about these essential and fascinating birds.

The Old Male Turkey Vulture and me at a recent exhibit in Fort Collins