Turkey vulture's thankless task continues among winter birds


January 31, 2002|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

THERE'S BEEN something of an avian mystery unfolding in Central County for the past few months. Residents have noticed that the usual winter birds - the jays, the cardinals, the wrens and the chickadees - have been joined by enormous birds roosting high in the treetops.

It turns out that the giant black birds, visible in the leafless trees like great lumps of blackened bark, are nothing more than big, old buzzards. They are sometimes spotted in Central County in other seasons, but when they're roosting in trees with full leaves, they're virtually invisible.

While we may think of them as buzzards, their correct name is turkey vulture, says Ranger Brian Campbell of Kinder Farm Park. Turkey vultures live year-round in this area, he says.

Designated a "bird of prey," along with his sharp-eyed cousin the hawk, the vulture never gets closer to the real act of hunting than a man using a remote control to switch to a televised exercise show gets to a real workout.

As scavengers, the birds live off of dead animals like mice, rabbits, raccoons, fox and deer. They nest in cliffs, caves, hollow stumps, logs and anywhere that is inaccessible, Campbell says. True to their scavenger hearts, they borrow readymade spaces in which to live, building little or no nests and often laying their eggs right on the ground.

It's the redheaded turkey vulture's sense of smell that lures him to Central County neighborhoods, where wildlife abounds near rivers and in fields. In groups of half a dozen or so, the vultures wait patiently, as if they can smell their future meals, with each small animal scurrying across the road beneath them seen as a potential entree.

The vultures remain aloft, waiting patiently until the next rodent meets his maker. Then they float from their 40-foot perches to the ground, and lunch.

Vultures are ridiculed for an appearance that is less than charming. Their beady little eyes are set in an puny red head atop an oversized black torso that can reach 26 inches in height, with a potential wingspan of more than 5 feet. Some fear them because of false accusations that they sometimes carry off small children or family pets, but the bird's only interest in humans is hoping that their vehicles will turn a witless squirrel into the road kill du jour.

The vulture's true calling is as Mother Nature's cleanup man, however distastefully he goes about his task. He removes carrion with the only means available to him. He eats it.

That's why we should understand the vulture's mission in the ecosystem, and appreciate its efforts, Campbell says.

For the opportunity to get a close-up look at the region's wonderful variety of winter birds, join Ranger Campbell for an evening bird walk at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 23. The birds will be beginning to roost for the night, Campbell says, and owls will be starting to fly as the sun goes down.

This walk is appropriate for children 10 and older. For directions to Kinder Farm Park, call 410-222-6115.

For a complete list of park events, call the park hot line at 410-222-6122.

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