It must be spring…

… the turkey vultures are back!
As large birds, turkey vultures depend on thermals to work themselves up to as high as 10,000 feet to search for carrion (dead animals). Once aloft, they fly with their wingtips splayed out finger-like for better flight control while soaring.

Turkey vultures are large dark birds. When they soar, they spread their wingtips.
Turkey vultures are large dark birds. When they soar, they spread their wingtips.

Because they need warm air to lift them, you’ll only turkey vultures from early spring through late fall.  During these seasons, you can spot turkey vultures soaring in the air everywhere in Colorado except high valleys and mountains.  They especially like piñon-juniper and mountain shrublands.
How do you know it’s a turkey vulture? TVs are very large birds which, when seen from below, are all dark, except the back edges of their wings which are translucent (allow light through).  Most commonly seen when soaring, their flight is “tippy”, with their wings in a slight “V” when you see them head on.  The head seems almost nonexistent from below.
Because they are meat-eaters, Turkey Vultures have traditionally been classified with birds of prey, but turkey vultures may be much more closely related to storks and flamingos.  They lack the razor-sharp beak and grasping talons of the hunters of the sky, and so cannot catch their own prey, or even tear into a fresh carcass.   Because of this, the Cherokee Nation calls turkey vultures “peace eagles”.
Instead, turkey vultures act as garbage disposals.  Special traits equip them for this job.  TV’s find carrion by smell, but use their excellent sight to find other TVs who have found something to eat.  Turkey vultures can digest truly toxic germs, eating rotten meat with impunity.  Once they find some dead thing, they plunge their featherless red heads in and gorge until they can barely fly.  We owe these and other scavengers a debt, for without them, we would be knee-deep in carcasses.
For a bird, Turkey Vultures are smart, gentle, sociable and, despite their public image, clean. Their Latin name, Cathartes, means “purifier”. The Spanish name for turkey vulture is zopilote (so-pee-low-tay), which is just a cool word to say.

Published by Amy Law

Amy Law is a science geek. She feels about science the way some people feel about music, or art, or sports – a total and complete emotional connection. She thinks in science. For Amy, there’s nothing better than helping people see the beauty of science as she does. She loves to untangle a complicated subject into its parts, explaining it so that anybody can understand what’s happening. Let her show you her world...

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