For the Birds Radio Program: Turkey Vulture

Original Air Date: April 9, 2004

Laura reads a poem by David Bottoms to celebrate a new spring arrival. (3:28) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Turkey Vultures

One of the most pleasing birds to watch in flight, yet one of the most ungainly to see on the ground, is the Turkey Vulture. These birds require meat for survival but simply do not kill to get it; rather, they smell out rotting carcasses. As carrion eaters, they provide important services to humans by helping clear out carcasses. Especially with the many tax cuts that have so badly reduced state and local services, more and more states are no longer removing carcasses of roadkills from highways and roads. These can harbor dangerous pathogens, especially as decay progresses, and so may ultimately be responsible for disease outbreaks, but eagles, ravens, and Turkey Vultures are doing their part to minimize the danger.

Ravens and eagles remain in the north all winter long, but Turkey Vultures have bald heads, making them susceptible to frostbite and hypothermia, so they retreat south for the winter. This week they’ve been returning in good numbers—as of April 7, Frank Nicolletti and Dave Carman had counted 175 migrating above West Skyline, where the two of them have been conducting a systematic spring raptor count. Of course, Turkey Vultures and condors aren’t raptors at all. For many years ornithologists classified them in their own family but in the same order as hawks and eagles, but now, looking at some morphological structures and at DNA relationships, they’ve moved New World vultures and condors into the same order as storks. It’s fascinating that the bird we most associate with death is so closely allied with the one we most associate with birth.

Our New World vultures aren’t related to the vultures of the Old World. The vultures in India, Pakistan, and Nepal have declined by over 95% in the past decade, but our vultures are doing just fine. I’ve recently been reading passages from a lovely book, Birds in the Hand, edited by Dylan Nelson and Kent Nelson, published this year by North Point Press. It’s a fine collection of fiction and poetry about birds. One poem is about Turkey Vultures at their roost, where they gather every evening. The poem is entitled, “Under the Vulture Tree”, by David Bottoms.

And I drifted away from them, slow, on the pull of the river,
reluctant, looking back at their roost,
calling them what I’d never called them before, what they are,
those dwarfed transfiguring angels,
who flock to the side of the poisoned fox, the mud turtle
crushed on the side of the road,
who pray over the leaf-graves of the anonymous lost,
with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings.

That was poet David Bottoms, and I’m Laura Erickson, speaking For the Birds.