Jul 22 2008
Lately several people have asked for help identifying huge dark birds. Based on the description my guess is usually turkey vulture, but I thought I’d give you some pointers so you can solve the mystery on your own.
Turkey vultures are large dark birds of prey with a 5.5 foot wingspan. The best way to identify them is to watch how they fly.
They soar with outstretched wings held in a dihedral – a shallow V. They rarely flap and even seem to avoid it, teetering from side to side to change direction or catch an updraft. No other big bird consistently does this. I like to think of it as “V is for Vulture.”
From a distance, turkey vultures look different than other large birds because they have relatively small heads and beaks (compared to hawks and eagles) and their legs don’t extend beyond their bodies (compared to herons and cranes). As you can see in Chuck Tague’s pictures, these birds are dark below with a pale trailing edge on their wings and small red faces.
Until a few years ago I saw vultures only in the country but now they’ve come to town. I see them soaring along Pittsburgh’s rivers and rising aloft on the heat from the stadium parking lots.
You probably know that turkey vultures eat carrion. In fact they are one of the few birds with a sense of smell and they use it to find food, the more spoiled and rank the better. Roadkill on a hot summer day really turns them on. They have such a good sense of smell that natural gas companies locate leaks in their pipelines by watching where the turkey vultures congregate.
I’ve got to tell you though, that I’m in awe of the vultures’ digestive system. They eat spoiled food all the time and it doesn’t make them sick. If I had the intestinal fortitude of a turkey vulture I could eat anything. But would I want to? Hmmmm.
(photos by Chuck Tague)