“He had the eye of a vulture,” Poe wrote. “Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold.”
It isn’t so much the eye of the vulture, it’s the entire head. Small, smooth, and featherless, with flaring nostrils not found on any other raptor, the vulture is downright ugly, ugly enough to provoke an “ewwww!” from just about any bird fancier. Yet, if one can look beyond its regrettable face and its prime source of diet (carrion), it’s possible to see a graceful bird of prey soaring overhead with a wing span rivaling that of an eagle.
Turkey vultures are common to this part of western New York; hundreds are counted each month by watchers at Derby Hill and Braddock Bay. They are easily identified by their red heads and silvery underwings. In flight, turkey vultures could easily be mistaken for an eagle if not for their penchant for holding their wings in a slight V-shape. And unlike the eagle, turkey vultures are community birds. If you see one gliding overhead, look again; you are likely to see a few more.
If you are lucky you might see another type of vulture sitting atop utility poles with outstretched wings and ugly heads. Black vultures are more common in the mid-Atlantic and southern regions, but they are occasionally seen up here near Lake Ontario. They are distinguished from their red-headed cousins by their black heads and whitish wing tips, which are held in a straight plane while in flight.
Neither turkey vultures nor black vultures can predict death, nor do they await it by circling in the sky. That’s the stuff of which 19th century Gothic novels were made. Besides, that would be a waste of time and energy. Vultures — turkey vultures, at least — are smarter than that. They conserve energy by riding the thermal columns that rise in the air, using their dihedral wing shape for stabilization. As a result they rarely need to expend energy when flying. They rely upon their keen sense of smell to detect the byproducts of decay — mercaptans — which lead them to dead deer and other carrion. They can eat just about anything — even sickly or infected flesh — with impunity, protected by their highly acidic digestion and natural immunity.
Turkey vultures, though, are picky eaters. They will pass if the animal has been dead too long, unless they are unusually hungry. Roadkill is not particularly favored, especially if it is too old, but a dead raccoon tenderizing in the road for up to 2 days could provide a mighty fine feast for a couple of turkey vultures. However, in so doing they run the risk of becoming roadkill themselves, since turkey vultures consume their food right where they find it.
Black vultures, though, are lazy and not too bright. They work their wings harder, so flying takes up more energy. They lack that keen sense of smell, so the search for carrion is by sight alone. Either that or they will follow their turkey vulture comrades and steal their food. Black vultures are scavengers but will also eat live food. They will prey upon small wildlife, even young livestock (watch out, farmers!), especially if it is weak or has been injured.
Vultures are at the top of their food chain. I mean, who wants to eat a vulture? Answer: No one. They stink to high heaven, and that is enough to scare just about any predator away. Both turkey vultures and black vultures pee on themselves (to cool their legs), and they will not hesitate to vomit up an odiferous half-digested meal if they feel threatened. The foul odor of the vomitus (plus the possibility of it being flung into one’s eyes) is enough to scare away any but the most persistent fox or hawk.
If a vulture is going to die, it will probably be from old age. Or from flying into a high-tension power line. Or into a tractor trailer doing 60 MPH on Rt 104.
Scavenging. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. And the vultures do it very well.