Around St. Patrick’s Day, I start to see Turkey Vultures soaring in loose groups as they move north into Maine after a winter further south. It’s as if they follow the same highways I do to get to Bethel. I know that’s not the case although, given what they eat, our highways might work like a long buffet for these birds. In any event, these large scavengers are another sign that Spring has arrived.

Turkey Vultures are widely spread throughout the Americas. In the 1980s, they first started breeding in Maine, and now they are seen routinely wheeling above our roads and fields.

Turkey Vultures are almost exclusively scavengers. Unlike some birds, vultures have a good sense of smell and can find a carcass even if hidden beneath trees. They are big and can be seen soaring in looping circles as they zero in on a meal. These behaviors mean when one Turkey Vulture finds a meal, chances are others soon follow.

Turkey Vultures, like other vultures around the world, have no feathers on their heads. Their head is reddish with black bristles – not a pretty face! (Photo by Tim Strater.) Their featherless head and large size means they can be confused with the Wild Turkey when standing on the ground. But that is where the similarities end. Turkey Vultures spend a lot of the time on the wing and are the champions of soaring. Once airborne, Turkey Vultures can go for long periods without flapping their wings. Turkey Vultures have a wing span of around five and a half feet. The Bald Eagle is one of the few soaring birds that is larger. When I see large, dark soaring birds I look for two things that help me tell the difference. First, Turkey Vultures have small heads tucked into their shoulders as they soar. Bald Eagles have large extended heads. Second, as Turkey Vultures soar, they often hold their wings in an up-tilted V. In geometric terms, this is called dihedral. Eagles look more like big, dark, flat boards when they soar.  So, if you see a big soaring bird with a tiny head, teetering back and forth on V-shaped wings – think Turkey Vulture.

And yes, they are homely. Plus, they eat disgusting things. Even so, don’t be too critical. Turkey Vultures play an important role in removing, literally, tons of animal carcasses from our fields, forests and roadsides. So, when you see one gliding overhead, tip your hat to this bird with a face only a mother could love.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to [email protected]

Turkey vulture. Tim Strater

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