They call them kettles, those soaring loose clusters of turkey vultures that stir the sky. The autumn sky is like a great inverted kettle that fills with leaves, and blackbirds, and Cessnas, and all manner of transient aerial stuff laboring to stay aloft in its own particular way. But above it all are the turkey vultures, convecting effortlessly upwards through the atmosphere like bubbles in a slow simmer.
From here below, their days look like bliss, gliding for hours on end without a wingbeat, maintaining lift and stability at lower altitudes by canting their wings upward in a dihedral V, teetering left and right, then riding corkscrew thermal elevators to the penthouse without so much as the twitch of a muscle.
Up there, turkey vultures are graceful and majestic. Down here, however, they are hideous, graceless, even revolting.
Until 1994, carrion-eating turkey vultures, and all New World vultures inhabiting the Americas, were believed to be raptors, related to hawks, falcons, and eagles, which seemed obvious just by looking at them in flight. Through DNA testing, however, fundamental differences were discovered. The lineage uncovered deep in their genes threaded its way back to storks, herons, and ibises, which may help to explain how incredibly gawky they are on the ground.
The turkey vulture’s wingspan, at nearly six feet, serves it well hundreds of feet in the air, but it makes the first 20 feet of the ascent an absolute mess with lots of desperate and clumsy flapping with not much result. The slow, fumbling launch sequence makes them particularly vulnerable to predators. And the unfortunate vultures that can’t resist the road kill buffet on a busy highway often find that they themselves are quickly converted to carrion by oncoming traffic.
Most of us were introduced to vultures as emblems of doom by watching westerns as kids. Whenever a hapless cowboy out on the bone-dry range tilted his head back to drain the last few drops of water from his canteen, he’d catch a glimpse of vultures circling overhead. Uh-oh!
Turkey vultures don’t eat dying things, however; they eat dead things. Vultures should be the last thing the thirsty cowboy should worry about — literally. These dying cowboy scenarios also confused a lot of us about the vulture’s proper name. As often as not, the cowboys called them buzzards, but the true buzzard, the European or Common buzzard (Buteo buteo), is in the hawk family, does not eat carrion, and does not exist in the New World.
Whoever decided that you are what you eat may have had turkey vultures in mind. If ever a visage reflected the hideous corruption of death and decay, the turkey vulture’s face is it. The bird’s head is bald with red wrinkled skin and large flaring nostrils giving it all the cuddly characteristics of raw meat.
The bird’s pate is bald for a reason. Vultures often stick their heads all the way into a carcass to select the choicest bits for their dining pleasure. If they were coiffed with feathers, bacteria from the decaying animal would get snagged and trapped on their heads. Better ugly and healthy than cute and infected.
The flaring nostrils are even more important than the bald head. Vultures are one of the rare species of bird that have a sense of smell. Turkey vultures have the keenest sense of smell of all the New World vultures, which include black vultures, California condors, and Andean condors. They are particularly attracted to the smell of mercaptan, a sulfurous gas associated with decay. (“Mmmm, smells good, honey! What’s rotting?”)
Turkey vultures have some disgusting personal habits to go along with their disgusting diets. To defend themselves from attack, for example, the birds will vomit their partially digested vile meals. The result smells so foul that even the hungriest predator will lose its appetite on the spot. They also defecate on their own legs, which serves a couple of purposes. In hot weather, the evaporation of the sloppy mess cools the vulture, and the high concentration of uric acid in the feces kills whatever bacteria lingers on the bird after standing on, or in, its meal.
Vultures display another odd bit of behavior in their perpetual battle against bacteria. They will frequently stand with their wings outstretched as if hanging laundry out to dry. In addition to warming the body and drying the wings, it is believed that the pose also helps kill bacteria by exposing it to sunlight. This is called the Horaltic Pose. I can’t find a definition anywhere for “horaltic,” but I like to believe it is the adjective form of “hora,” that familiar Israeli and Romanian round dance in which dancers hold their arms out to the side. The whole scene makes a lot more sense if you hum “Hava Nagila.”
Notwithstanding the revolting details of vulture survival, the birds have ardent admirers who understand the critical role they play in the ecosystem. There is even a Turkey Vulture Society with a website — vulturesociety.homestead.com — where you can adopt a vulture for $100. (The Turkey Vulture Society is the source for much of the material in this column that you wish you didn’t know.)
For the squeamish, turkey vultures, as interesting as they are, should be viewed through the wrong end of the binoculars. But when they float serenely, high in the autumn sky, have no fear, pay close attention, and witness the transcendence of a remarkable creature that is making a life out of death. Put away those dark thoughts and remember: every kettle of vultures bubbles inexorably toward heaven.