The turkey vulture ranks among notable additions to the local birding scene. True enough, a few vulture sightings were noted by the birders among the region's explorers and pioneers, but for the most part, turkey vultures either were scarce or absent.
Not so any longer.
Vultures have become regular migrants through the Red River Valley, and nesting pairs have been noted fairly close by. Seeing vultures is therefore no longer a surprise.
Spring seems to be the busiest time for vulture sightings; perhaps nearly every roadside offers a meal to a passing vulture. Vultures are scavengers; they subsist on carrion, and they like it well done.
Much has been written about vultures, and little of it celebrates the beauty of the bird. Even David Crossley, whose guidebook descriptions of birds are often effusive, says of the turkey vulture, "It's hard to describe vultures as anything other than ugly."
This shortchanges the birds.
Vultures are quite magnificent soaring birds, large and easily identified. They habitually soar in wide circles, always with their long wings raised slightly, forming a wide, shallow V-shape - a dihedral, technically.
Soaring vultures display a two-toned pattern on the underside of the wings, dark in front and lighter - though not quite white - in back. The wing beats, when they come, are deep and powerful, aimed at pushing the vulture out of the rising thermal that ordinarily sustains it, either to change direction, even if only slightly, or to descend for a meal or a rest.
Vultures appear very dark, though their overall plumage is dark brown rather than black.
Their heads are small in relation to the size of the bird, and this can be an aid in identification. The heads of other soaring birds appear larger. The difference is in the feathers. Vultures' heads are bare, completely without feathers, and dark, purplish red in color.
Their feet are weak, without the talons that distinguish their relatives, the hawks and eagles. Often, they are light in color.
These details - small head and weak, light feet - are adaptations that make vultures superb clean-up artists - the vacuum cleaners of the bird world, as they are sometimes called. The head is bare to avoid rotting flesh adhering to it, and the feet are weak because vultures use them to tear into rotting carrion rather than to seize live prey.
Nor do vultures have any music that might redeem their unsavory reputation. Except for hissing, bill clapping and wing flapping, vultures are mostly silent.
Yet vultures are vital to ecosystems in which they occur, and they seem to be reoccupying the continent. This might be attributed to the disappearance of large grazing animals, particularly bison, which once were abundant. A good-sized bison would have provisioned a good-sized flock of vultures. Today's roadkill makes a poor substitute.
For generations, ornithologists disagreed about whether vultures spotted prey by smell or by sight; today's consensus is that both are involved, but that sight may be the more important, because it allows soaring birds to spot a likely meal - or to join its fellows at a feast.
While vultures spend most of their time aloft, they do come to the ground to feed. Crossley notes, "When flushed from roadside carrion, (the vulture) waits shiftily for the all-clear to go back." Vultures, he notes, "often fight for food 'at table.' "
Occasionally, a vulture itself may become roadkill. That happened last week along North Dakota Highway 18. I saw the bird dead on the pavement Friday afternoon; it was still there Sunday morning.
The vultures themselves had moved on, perhaps to nesting territory in the Pembina River Valley just north of the international boundary, where they have been established for some time. Perhaps some will stop short of the border; recent reports suggest the bird is filling in areas where it has recently been absent.
Although vultures are most often seen in flight or "at table," their communal roosts have been reported on the Red River Greenway and in Memorial Park Cemetery, both in Grand Forks. Vultures wait for rising thermals to leave their roosts; in the meantime, they spread their two-toned wings to absorb heat from the rising sun.