Turkey Vultures Return

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We’re now fully into our brief spring down here in southern Arizona.  For us, spring begins in late February and is pretty much over by early May.  Within a couple of weeks we’ll be experiencing daytime highs well into the 90s and I don’t think that anyone thinks of that type of heat as “spring weather.”

But, we’re still experiencing relatively pleasant days and cool evenings so we should enjoy it while it lasts.  All of the creatures that enjoy our warm weather seem to have returned or emerged from dormancy in the last few weeks and likewise, our winter residents have headed out.

Turkey Vultures are, for the most part, seasonal residents in Tucson and its immediate environs.  Most of them are out of here by late October and they return in March.  Evidently, some of them don’t fly very far.  Southern Arizona is considered to be part of the species’ permanent range and I’ve seen them in January on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, a scant 40 miles southwest of where we live.  However, for whatever reason, they seem to clear out of the agricultural lands in Tucson’s immediate vicinity during the winter months.

They’re back now.  I photographed this individual the other day, part of a mixed group of Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and Crested Caracaras.  There was a dead animal nearby.  I assume that these birds had fed on the carcass.

Turkey Vultures are cousins to our other vulture species, the Black Vulture.  They bear a superficial resemblance to each other but there are physical differences between the species.  Turkeys are longer and leaner than are Blacks.  They have significantly longer wings and tails than do the Black Vultures.  Adult Turkey Vultures have bald red heads whereas Black Vultures have dark gray or black heads, also bald.  Here’s an image of a Black Vulture that I took recently that shows the physical differences between the two species.

There are some significant behavioral differences as well.  Black and Turkey Vultures have overlapping year round ranges, covering most of the southern United States.  But, Turkey Vultures also summer in the northern states whereas Black Vultures do not.  Both species are adept fliers, capable of soaring to great heights and for long periods of time, but Black Vultures are somewhat better at it than are Turkey Vultures.  Turkey Vultures have a superb sense of smell.  They locate food by its odor and they can pick up a scent from a very long distance.  Black Vultures lack that great sense of smell but they have extraordinary eyesight.  Black Vultures often follow Turkey Vultures to food.  Black Vultures are social.  They tend to gather and roost in flocks, sometimes of dozens of birds.  Turkey Vultures, by contrast, are largely solitary.  They may gather in  a group around a carcass but they disperse once feeding is over.  I see them flocking only during their fall migration.  When the two species are together the Blacks tend to be somewhat more aggressive, driving the Turkeys off the carcass until the Blacks have fed.

I know that some people aren’t fond of vultures of either species but I find them to fascinating.  Besides, they’re nature’s cleanup crew.

First image made with a Canon 5Div, second with a Canon 5Diii.  Both images taken with a 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender.  Both images shot at aperture priority setting.  First image shot at ISO 640, f8 at 1/800.  Second image shot at ISO 500, f8 @ 1/1000.


One response to “Turkey Vultures Return”

  1. Liesl Kii says :

    Fascinating information about vultures!

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