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2014-04-03

- In The Wild - Turkey vulture, the cleanup king

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Since the turkey vulture population of our county seat became nationally known as the Buzzards of Bandera, we should, perhaps, learn a bit more about these creatures.
The turkey vultures whose droppings are causing some concern in downtown Bandera are the most widespread vulture in North America. Lots of us call them "buzzards."
We've all learned to recognize their V-shape in flight as they slowly circle the skies, riding the thermals as they sniff for carrion.
Turkey vultures are found from the southernmost tip of South America up into Canada.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, our American vultures may look and act a lot like the vultures in Europe, Asia and Africa, with broad wings, bare heads, and the habit of eating dead meat, but they're in different taxonomic families, and are not closely related. The similarities are the result of a process known as convergent evolution.
The National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, says a turkey vulture standing on the ground can, at a distance, resemble a wild turkey. Well, maybe!
It is unique among our vultures in that it finds carrion by smell as well as by sight. When threatened, it defends itself by vomiting powerful stomach acids. Eeew!
A mature turkey vulture can be a little over two feet long and have a wingspan of almost six feet.
The bird is black with brownish tones, the legs can show some pink. The head is unfeathered and red in the adult. The juvenile head is usually dark grey to black.
In flight, the vulture will hold its wings in a V-shape. It usually rocks side-to-side, especially in strong winds. Underneath, the silvery secondary feathers contrast with the black primaries and wing tips, giving a two-toned look to the wing. The tail is relatively long.
If you get close enough, you can hear the bird hiss if it feels threatened.
Some vultures migrate into Canada during the summer months. Ornithologists find the birds' population numbers to be fairly stable.
The turkey vulture's sense of smell is excellent because the part of its brain responsible for smell is quite a bit larger than in many other birds. Cornell says it can detect odors that are just a few parts per trillion.
Most of us carry a somewhat negative image of the turkey vulture, or "buzzard," thanks to hours of viewing westerns in which the circling birds portend a gory scene of death just beyond the next sand dune or rocky ledge.
Some cultures, however, hold vultures as sacred because of their "cleanup role" in death. Among those are Tibetan Buddhists and Zoroastrians. The latter hold vultures in high regard as the animals that release the soul from the body when the dead are placed on raised platforms.
In parts of urban India, unfortunately, a drug given to cows has proven so toxic to vultures, there are not enough of the birds remaining to do the cleanup they were designed for and dead animals must now be buried.
The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. The turkey vulture's scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either "golden purifier" or "purifying breeze."
Turkey vultures don't build full nests. They rearrange soil or scratch out a nest of vegetation in rock crevices or caves, on ledges and hollow logs. Once they settle on a nest location, they may use the site for a decade or more.
Buzzards are viewed negatively in most Native American tribes because of their association with death. Seeing buzzards flying is considered an omen of danger or strife. In Native American legends, Buzzard is most often portrayed as an aggressive troublemaker who lies, cheats, hoards resources that should belong to everyone, or uses his large size to bully other birds.
Buzzards are respected clan animals in some Native American cultures. Tribes with Buzzard Clans include the Menominee and the Miami tribes. Some eastern tribes, like the Seminole and Lenape, have also had a Buzzard Dance among their tribal dance traditions.
Look up the legend of Manabozho and Vulture to learn how the vulture became a stinky fellow with a red featherless head!