If you were to visit the South Fork Nature Center area this time of year specifically to see local bird life, you might be somewhat disappointed. Birds are sometimes difficult to find in the winter woods.
But do not despair; two kinds of large all-black birds can frequently be seen cruising just above the treetops or soaring high in the sky – those circling black specks way up there. These birds usually are either Turkey Vultures or Black Vultures, or both. They have large black wings which in flight are spread on a dihedral, putting the wings slightly above the bird’s body with wing tips held up at a slight angle. Their wings are built for soaring and gliding to take advantage of thermal columns of rising air to gain high altitudes with little or no wing-pumping effort.
The Turkey Vulture has long tail feathers extending well beyond its body and a featherless red wrinkled-skin head, built for moisture control during feeding, while the Black Vulture has stubby, short tail feathers, easily seen when in flight, and also a featherless head but with black wrinkled skin. These features make identification of these similar birds quick and
The Turkey Vulture is extremely proficient at detecting dead things by smell; their olfactory system is so highly developed that they can recognize odors while soaring on those upward flowing air columns hundreds of feet high. From up there they scout for food, specifically dead, decomposing creatures. Even though Turkey Vultures’ eye sight from on high is not that
great they are usually the first to arrive at an undiscovered feast – frequently soon to be followed by groups of Black Vultures with an attitude.
Evidence of beneficial carrion removal at SFNC by vultures includes hollowed-out armadillo carcasses, poached deer parts and partial fish remains along cove shorelines. Frequently you may encounter vultures consuming a road kill and occasionally a dead vulture who had become a highway glutton unable to fly and avoid traffic.
We owe both vulture species a deep debt of gratitude for the speed and thoroughness by which they dispose of carrion reducing the likelihood of related disease in the wild.