ALWAYS IN SEASON: A face only a vulture could love

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- A turkey vulture isn't likely to win any beauty contests, unless -- perhaps -- the judge is another turkey vulture. Nevertheless, the turkey vulture is an interesting creature well worth knowing. To start with, from a distanc...

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- A turkey vulture isn't likely to win any beauty contests, unless -- perhaps -- the judge is another turkey vulture.

Nevertheless, the turkey vulture is an interesting creature well worth knowing.

To start with, from a distance turkey vultures can appear noble -- majestic, even.

Close up? Not so much.

A vulture in flight can be confused with a soaring hawk or an eagle, yet they are even more perfectly adapted to life aloft than those well-known aerialists.


Turkey vultures are streamlined, with long wings that catch uprising thermals. These lift the birds. And the vultures ride them effortlessly, wings outstretched in a very shallow "V" -- a trait that allows distant observers to separate them readily from hawks and eagles, which fly with flattened wings and which flap more often. A vulture riding a thermal seldom flaps its wings, rather moving in widening circles eyeing -- and smelling -- the ground.

Vultures apparently use both sight and smell to locate their favorite food -- dead critters. Decaying flesh gives off gases that the vultures can detect from some distance. Once spotted, a delectable road kill will attract a group of these birds. Apparently, the birds spot one another moving for the feast even though the birds can't be seen by human eyes. This creates a dramatic circumstance: Vultures appear out of nowhere when conditions are right.

The vulture's adaptation to carrion eating is pretty nearly perfect. In addition to their sense of smell and keen eyesight, vultures are equipped with heavy beaks ideally suited for tearing at decaying flesh. In fact, the word "vulture" comes from Latin meaning "to tear."

Then there's the naked head.

A vulture's head has no feathers that carrion could stick to -- a concession to hygiene that's somewhat unexpected but probably critically important to the health of the birds. Instead, a vulture's face is bare. In mature turkey vultures, it is red, sometimes quite bright red and sometimes dulled by brown or black.

Still, the bare head is the field mark that clinches identification of the turkey vulture.

The vulture's neck aids in carrion consumption, too. Vultures are able to extend their necks into the cavities of dead things, making them extremely efficient as scavengers.

At rest, vultures appear hump-backed, because the longish neck is pulled back against the upper back.


Overall, these birds are dark brown or dull black, sometimes with a bit of iridescence. In flight, their wings appear two-toned, dark in front and lighter in the back. This is another way to distinguish them from eagles, which are more uniformly dark (although immature eagles can show patches of white on the underside of the wings).

There's a second vulture species in the southeastern United States, the black vulture. This bird has shorter, more rounded wings, and the head is black rather than red, a key distinction.

Turkey vultures occur over much of North America, including western North Dakota, where they are a prominent feature of the Badlands landscape. There's also a well established vulture population in the Pembina River Valley just across the international boundary from such U.S. towns as Walhalla, Wales and Langdon, N.D.

Still, they have been uncommon in the Red River Valley and much of central North Dakota. Until quite recently, they were even considered accidental here.

Occasionally, vultures turned up in spring migration. I've spotted them in Memorial Park Cemetery and along the Red River Greenway.

Still, I was surprised to see a group of vultures in western Walsh County on Sunday afternoon -- the height of summer and well outside of migration season. What's more, there were several vultures, at least five and not more than eight, I'd guess. They were riding thermals along the ridge that marks the western edge of the Red River Valley.

Several years ago, I encountered vultures in an empty barn in Towner County, about halfway across the state. They must have been nesting. The birds assumed a defensive posture and hissed at me -- one of the few sounds they're capable of making.

So, this is a species that seems to be expanding into our area -- another reason to put them on a list of birds to get to know.


Jacobs is publisher of the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to .

Turkey vulture
Illustration by Grand Forks Herald Publisher Mike Jacobs

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