The vulture’s redeeming feature is its graceful flight… If only we could lift away from Earth with that effortless freedom and look down from above upon the springtime beauty of this land.
The vultures of spring
Harbingers of spring, swallows return each March to San Juan Capistrano in California, robins to Ann Arbor in Michigan, sandhill cranes to the Platte River Valley in Nebraska, snow geese to the Arctic tundra of Canada’s Nunavut Territory, storm petrels to the rocky coasts of Maine, a dozen species of ducks to the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas and Saskatchewan, and the mountain bluebirds to the Bitterroot Range in Idaho.
In the North Country we get buzzards. Turkey vultures.
We know spring is on its way when our resident pair of turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) appears, floating gracefully on the wind over the ravine on the south edge of our farm, roosting in a huge old oak tree, and spying out the landscape for winter-kill carrion and a likely ledge to lay and incubate their eggs this summer. There is probably some preternatural connection between my springtime musings on life and the arrival of this most grotesque and least appealing of the avian population but it is best if I do not think too deeply about it.
I try to divert my attention to the more noble-looking birds of prey that we see almost daily: red-tailed hawks, cooper’s hawks, and the magnificent bald eagles that nest on our near our farm. Night brings the haunting calls and the ghostly, silent hunting flight of our resident owls: great horned, long-eared, barred, screech, and one that I cannot identify but whose huge, round, demonic face and glaring eyes have terrified me twice on woodland walks when we came beak-to-nose in a tangle of cedar branches.
Spring is also announced by the songs of a dozen species of ground-nesting birds that return to our grassland pasture, including dickcissels, bobolinks, nighthawks, field sparrows, and the ubiquitous and obnoxious redwing blackbirds. Our woodlands are musical too, the nesting habitat for more than 20 species of songbirds, including orioles, rose breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, cardinals, blue jays, cedar waxwings, eastern bluebirds, wrens, wood thrushes, rufus sided towhees, warblers, vireos, and of course the buzz-bomb hummingbirds. Year-round our farm is home to black capped chickadees, nuthatches, crows, and several piciformes species: sapsuckers, flickers, downy, hairy and redheaded woodpeckers, and two pair of pileated woodpeckers.
It is a haven for bird life, our remote corner of northeast Iowa called the Driftless Plains (technically, the Paleozoic Plateau). A unique North American geological formation, this dome of land about 100 or 150 miles across was bypassed by the glaciers of the Ice Ages and therefore has retained much of its pre-glacial, Paleozoic landform, characterized by steep limestone bluffs, cold water streams, sinkholes and caves, odd-shaped fields broken by rugged woodlands, all atop a karst topography substructure of fractured limestone. Rich in its diversity of wildlife habitats it is a place of endless revelations and hidden wonders. There are species of plants and animals here that exist nowhere else on Earth.
The vultures that gather here, on the other hand, are disturbingly common.
The turkey vulture is not truly a bird of prey, a hunter. It is a scavenger that feeds on carrion, which it finds either by sight or scent depending on which ornithological tract you read. While many species of birds are struggling for survival in once wild country now devastated by today’s industrial agriculture, the turkey vulture is doing just fine (another portent that I would be wise to ignore).
Some vulture roosts are communal, but our sheer-sided ravine has always been the haunt of a single pair. Don’t expect them to announce their presence with the grandeur of the red-tailed hawk’s defiant scream or the long-eared owl’s moaning hoot: the vulture’s only vocal sound is a grunt or a hiss. The male and female are identical, both with black-grey-brown plumage and the same horrid, naked, red neck and head. The dull-white beak is short, legs and feet pink, and its three toes, though large, are weak with blunt talons. It has a lifespan, in the wild, of as much as 15 years.
Vultures have almost no natural enemies. Their defense mechanism, famously, is vomiting on an attacker or intruder, and this has discouraged me from searching out their rock-shelf nesting place to learn more about their eggs and incubation schedule, so I accept the summary text in my bird identification guide.
It reports the breeding season of the turkey vulture in the North Country begins in March and can extend into August. They do not make a nest. The female lays one to three eggs, which are cream-colored with brown spots at the large end, on a bare rock ledge or in the hollow of a stump or dead tree. Both the female and male incubate the eggs that hatch after 30 to 40 days, and the chicks are even more hideous than the adults. The adults care for the chicks about 10 or 11 weeks, feeding them by regurgitation. Why not? The family breaks up when they migrate south in the late fall.
Although I understand and try to appreciate the role of the vulture in the ecosystem –- it disposes of rotting carrion that can breed disease-causing microorganisms –- my narrow-minded prejudice prevents me from admiring them. Crouched by the body of a road-killed fox or waddling through a pile of dead trout along an oxygen-starved stream they are a symbol of the success of carrion-feeders and the decline of predatory hunters in a landscape becoming ever more desecrated by the encroachments of civilization.
The vulture’s redeeming feature is its graceful flight. Almost any day in farm country you can see clusters of vultures soaring in their weaving patterns, using thermals and wind currents to stay aloft with a minimum of flapping, their wings locked in a shallow V that distinguishes them from the hawks and eagles that glide with wings held straight out. If only we could lift away from Earth with that effortless freedom and look down from above upon the springtime beauty of this land.
But when they coast back into the south ravine and perch on the gnarled limbs of the old oak tree, damn, they are disgustingly ugly. One glance at them reminds me it’s time to fill the hummingbird feeders.
More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.