For the Birds Radio Program: Vulture Chow

Original Air Date: Feb. 19, 1999

Laura Erickson’s love for Turkey Vultures and her nervousness about an ominous development in bird feeding brought her another postcard from Dave Barry. Date verified.

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Reports on the Internet in the past few weeks make it sound like Minnesota and especially Wisconsin are in the midst of the North American spring hawk migration. People are seeing Bald Eagles, red-tails, kestrels, harriers, rough-legs, and even a few Turkey Vultures. Turkey Vultures are returning to the Northland early this year, probably because they didn’t go as far south as usual for the winter. Some may even have wintered in the Baraboo Hills of Wisconsin. That never happened before 1995. 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 mild weather we had most of the season 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 has occasionally made the news when farmers got angry that they were 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 in the spring of 1995, 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?