The Turkey Vulture

BIRDS IN PARTICULAR   

by Halle O’Falvey

The turkey vulture scavenges for its food but prefers the freshly dead. Its keen sense of smell can detect the earliest of gases emitting from death and decay, as it searches the lowlands for food. Add to this its ardent, white-warted eyes, its bald, featherless red head, its awkward, hopping walk, its stinging vulture vomit, its chicks that nest in the dirt with a few bottle caps and metallic strings; they survive. Noteworthy, is that they poop and pee on their legs to cool off, changing their yellow legs to white. The New World Family species: turkey vultures, black vultures and the California condors.

Recently, I attended a Minnesota Ornithological Union event, “Spring Birding Primer” at Carpenter Nature Center, in Hastings, MN. One of the speakers, a well-respected elder, Bob Jansson, a birder, a most revered birder, who has counted over 200 birds in all but one of Minnesota’s 87 counties. When asked what his favorite bird was, he said the turkey vulture. There were hushed gasps in the room. He chuckled and said it was about the way they soared on the thermals.

Turkey vultures can be seen soaring on the thermals along the Mississippi River with their two-toned wing span and their five fingered wing tips. I was on Shepard Road at the Fort Snelling overlook on the St. Paul bank of the river. This interpretive area is above the now swollen confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. It has limestone and metal outdoor art depicting Native American history and our topography.

The Mississippi and the Minnesota Rivers both flow south, but did you know that the Minnesota River flows southeast from the Laurentian Divide then takes a sharp turn in Mankato, MN? The Minnesota River flows Up North and East to meet the Mississippi River at Pike Island at Fort Snelling State Park. For the Dakota, this confluence is Pilot Knob, on the Mendota side. It is sacred, it is called Bdote Minisota. It is worth a visit.

Many years ago, I was on a solo birding trip in Southern California. I stopped at the Morongo Wildlife Preserve for several hours. Halfway through my walk, on the trail, I heard some loud, crunchy, haunting, unfamiliar sounds. I was terrified I was going to be attacked by something. I leapt off the trail in terror, only to find a scrub jay hopping around on the ground snacking. To me that meant the jay wasn’t bothered by this noise, so I was safe. As I jumped back on the trail, I looked up and saw hundreds of turkey vultures in the trees. Turkey vultures communicate through hisses and grunts. Only I did not know that. As I continued back to the trailhead I saw hundreds or thousands of turkey vultures flying in to roost there in the desert preserve. They reminded me of the migration of the sandhill cranes in that respect. Flying in for the night to roost together for protection.

Turkey vultures are migratory birds of prey. They breed here in Minnesota and they roost in masses. Look up along the Mississippi River in the hood. They do not venture into our yards.

Email halleofalvey@gmail.com if you are interested in a birding trip.


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