For the Birds Radio Program: Turkey Vultures

Original Air Date: April 17, 1995

Thanks to an ominous development in the world of bird feeding, Laura Erickson has an update in her correspondence with humor columnist Dave Barry. (3:12)

This was modified and re-recorded on 1999-02-19

Audio missing


Last week, I drove to Bemidji, Minnesota, on Highway 2, which seemed to be in the midst of the North American spring hawk migration. I saw dozens of Bald Eagles, red-tails and kestrels, several harriers, a couple of rough-legs, and even a few Turkey Vultures. Turkey Vultures returned to the Northland early this year, probably because they didn’t go as far south as usual for the winter. Several wintered in the Baraboo Hills of Wisconsin for the first time on record. Usually these bald-headed birds can’t handle the cold that far north, since they don’t come with built in hat and ear muffs, but the miles weather allowed them to do just fine.

The Turkey Vulture is a bird dear to my heart, because I rather identify with a meat eater who can’t bear to kill its own meat. Its southern relative, the Black Vulture, is also primarily a carrion eater, but Black Vultures do kill animals for food as well. That was the species that tormented Galapagos Tortoises at Disney world and that recently made the news because farmers are angry that they are killing young farm animals. There are virtually no records of the meek and mild Turkey Vulture killing anything. These birds prefer their meat not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead, and wait until plenty of automobiles or bacteria have mashed up a carcass beyond recognition before they descend upon it for a meal. Their well-tuned sense of smell allows them to find rotten meat deep in the forest, where visual hunters could never find it beneath the canopy, and their unique stomach secretions destroy botulism, anthrax, and a host of other disease organisms that would kill more squeamish birds.

Although Black Vultures occasionally make the news because of their killing ways, Turkey Vultures also appear in the paper every March in connection with Buzzard Day, celebrated in Hinkley, Ohio. And this spring, they also appeared in “The South Shore Connection,” a little newsletter published in Cornucopia, Wisconsin. Tom Gerstenberger writes an interesting bird column, and in the March issue his article was about Turkey Vultures. He wrote:

Contrary to what you might think, they can be attracted to your yard just like any other bird. Several years ago, we put a sheep carcass in an open spot in our back yard. Within several days we had three Turkey Vultures visit us early in the morning.

Much as I enjoy Turkey Vultures, this seemed like an ominous development in the world of bird feeding, so I sent the column to Dave Barry, the best-selling author and world authority on exploding cows, who sent me back a postcard saying just two words, “Vulture chow.” Turkey Vultures: they bring grace and beauty to the skies, clean up our road kills, and get us postcards from Pulitzer-Prize winning humor columnists, to boot. Who could ask for more?