Vultures integral to the ecosystem

A turkey vulture in flight. PHOTO: Ann Brokelman

Many birders have stood with me at the hawk watch, staring into the sky with hopes of seeing a hawk, falcon, or eagle. While these birds make regular appearances, there is one bird that you can always depend on: turkey vultures. On a recent day, the sky was full of them — more than usual. Over a dozen of them passed by, one at a time, soaring over us like a squadron of planes during The Ex’s International Air Show.

A pair of turkey vultures. PHOTO: Ann Brokelman

These are large birds with broad brownish-black wings that end in silvery finger-shaped tips. Those finger-shaped wings are the easiest way to distinguish a turkey vulture from other birds of prey. The second easiest way to identify one is to observe the V shaped position of their wings when they soar on the wind or thermals (rising columns of warm air).

While many people say the turkey vulture is ugly, I find them fascinating to look at and learn about. When it comes to taking care of the environment, these birds are of the utmost importance. Turkey vultures are one of our main clean up crews. As scavengers they remove dead animals from our roads, farmlands, forests, and landfills. They have an incredible immune system that allows them to consume, without getting sick from, the naturally-occurring anthrax, botulism, salmonella, or rabies found in dead animals. The vultures aren’t just protecting us from directly contracting these diseases, but they limit the danger for other animals, which don’t have similar immunities, that could be vulnerable to said sickness.

A five-week old turkey vulture. PHOTO: Ann Brokelman

Here are a few random facts I’ve learned about these animals over the years:

Random Vulture Fact #1: Our turkey vultures will defecate on their own feet in order to kill the bacteria they haven’t eaten, but were exposed to, similar to how we use hand disinfectant.

Random Vulture Fact #2: The birds have featherless heads because they have a tendency to get a little messy while eating carrion, and feathers are harder to clean and more likely to carry sickness.

Random Vulture Fact #3: International Vulture Awareness Day is held on the first Saturday in September every year.  See link to give you more information.

Varieties of these birds have been around for millions of years. Unlike most birds, they don’t build nests but instead lay their eggs on the ground or, preferably, in old barns. A generic group of vultures is called a venue, or a committee, a group of them circling in their air is called a kettle, and a group of vultures at a kill is called a wake. Vultures can live up to 20 years in the wild.

A venue of turkey vultures. PHOTO: Ann Brokelman

That’s it for now. If you would like to learn more about these interesting birds, I am giving away a copy of Debra Toor’s book: Survival Secrets of Turkey Vultures. This is a children’s book for ages 9 to 11 years old and would make a great gift. If you’d like to be included in the draw, send an email to or give the Beach Metro News office a call by Dec. 4. We will announce the winner in the Dec. 12 issue of the paper.

Ann Brokelman is an avid birder and nature photographer. Connect with her at



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