Turkey Vultures Adapt to City Life

Article featured in the Fayetteville Observer, written by Hal Broadfoot, attorney in Fayetteville NC.

David Courie texted me the other day to ask if I had seen the vultures atop the Woodrow Street Park water tower. I had. At least a hundred of these birds rest there day and night.

Later, when I saw him at work, David and I talked more about the vultures. What exactly are they? Why are they here? Why are they attracted to the tower? This didn’t happen when we were younger, did it? Several people have asked me similar questions about congregations of vultures on this and other towers around the region, so I’ll take advantage of this forum to discuss the phenomenon.

The birds at Woodrow Street are turkey vultures, so-named because of their superficial resemblance to the wild game bird. Both are large and dark with unfeathered reddish heads. The turkey vulture has long wide wings that end with five or six primary feathers extending like fingers. A six-foot person’s arm span comes close to the width of the turkey vulture’s wingspan. The front third of each underwing is lined with dark feathers; a wedge of lighter-colored feathers comprises the trailing edge.

In flight, you can tell a turkey vulture is a turkey vulture from a long way off.

First, its enormous size allows you to see it from a distance, and that is often what catches your eye. Only an eagle is as large. But, it is easy to tell a turkey vulture from a bald or golden eagle.

Eagles soar on wings held flat in the same plane; a turkey vulture soars with its wings upswept in a slight dihedral (two planes meeting at angle). Just remember to associate the v-shaped wings with the “v” in vulture.

Eagles tend to move along deliberately in a straight line. In contrast, turkey vultures tend to rock from side-to-side as they soar, buffeted by the wind.

Turkey vultures are scavengers. They eat carrion, which is a polite way of saying the decaying flesh of dead animals. In fact, this diet is why vultures have bare heads. It is easier to get an unfeathered head clean than a feathered one after it has been digging around in a carcass.

These birds are common all over the United States in the warmer months and in Cumberland County year ’round.

In the cooler months, the number of vultures increases here, because we have an influx of birds from states to the north and west of us.

Years ago, when I was a birding kid, I didn’t notice an increase of vultures in the wintertime. Maybe some of the vultures from elsewhere, as well as some of ours, went farther south for the winter back then.

Climate change could be responsible for the difference today; since it’s warmer, more of these birds might be sticking around. For whatever reason, turkey vultures have become more common here at this time of year.

When I see turkey vultures on the Woodrow Street water tower or any number of radio towers around the region, I note that their arrangement mimics what I have seen in the wild.

Being large, long-winged birds, turkey vultures can’t just roost anywhere. They have to have a clear shot into their perch and a clear flight path on which to get away. So, dead trees with few remaining limbs and leaves to hinder them are their preference. And, when the birds fly in, their wingspan forces them to sit apart from each other. Maintaining that distance on the roost also affords them room to spread their wings when it comes time to fly away.

Perhaps our penchant for removing dead trees has limited natural places available for turkey vultures at a time when the species needs more places to sit. Next chance you get, take a look at how vultures situate themselves on a local tower. It’ll make sense to you now.

Where turkey vulture was once a bird of rural habitats, it is now a suburban bird. Look up next time you’re outside. One of these birds is probably flying overhead.


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