Backyard birding in Maine suggests chickadees, cardinals, and perhaps a few mourning doves on the ground, not a turkey vulture with a five-foot wing span. And not in the middle of winter.
Our feeding station is larger than most bird feeders. A wide platform for food scraps, it attracts mostly crows and ravens. It gets pretty busy in the winter, and in December, with ten inches of snow and temperatures below freezing, there was plenty of activity as birds gathered for free and easy food. I always look out the glass doors as I pass to see what the crows are up to. Last week I did a classic cartoon-style stop in my tracks, trying to register what I was seeing. The big black shape tearing into the chunks of leftovers did not compute. About six times the size of a crow, the young turkey vulture took up most of the space on the platform.
I generally see these birds, Cathartes aura, commonly called turkey vultures, buzzards, or John crows, from March until October, flying in sloppy circles or drifting on thermals high in the air. I once had about four or five of them join me on a picnic when kayaking in Calais, landing twenty feet from me and just sitting there, watching my every move. It was an up-close and far too personal view of them. I thought them ugly, with their scaly, red unfeathered heads and sharp pale beaks.
The bird hanging out at our feeder should be on his or her way to Florida. I do not know if it is a male or female, as they have the same coloration. It has survived far colder temperatures than it is used to, and is probably having a hard time finding food. Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell, and can detect the early stages of decay.
Their sense is so acute, they were once used to find gas leaks by the Union Oil Company. Ethyl mercaptan, with its noxious rotten egg odor, is injected into natural gas so it can be detected. This is the same chemical emitted from carrion, and a retired engineer tells about seeing turkey vultures spiraling above a leaky section of pipe, believing there was food below and so making the engineer’s job of finding the problem easy.
But when things are frozen, they do not give off an odor. Turkey vultures on the east coast migrate to Florida, where dead things smell, and they can find food. Our visiting vulture was possibly attracted to our yard by all the crows feasting, and found a meal even without smelling it.
The first few days the crows were indignant at this massive interloper on their platform. They flew at him. They crowed and heckled. One sat on a branch above this gentle giant and defecated on him. He (or she) was unperturbed, and sat for hours slowly tearing bits of frozen meat from the rib cage of a deer a neighbor had shot.
This vulture, which we have unfortunately nicknamed Vulcan, would eat, then fly up into a tall white pine to rest. He was here over Christmas, and we watched him as we ate our Christmas dinner. We then went to visit family, and returning after a three day absence saw no sign of him. We hoped he had headed south, but the day after we returned he was back.
He and the crows have established a comfortable relationship. I have seen as many as three crows crowded onto the platform with him, brushing feathers and sharing food, while another 6 or ten are on the ground below of on nearby branches. My cat is fascinated by this creature, and runs up and sits below the feeder, watching him. When the vulture flies in and lands on the feeder he spends some time shifting and adjusting his position. He may have a problem with his right leg, but I am not sure. He occasionally stretches his wings, and the browns, warm grays and chocolate colors of his feathers are very like those of my Maine coon cat.
Buzzards flying overhead in warmer weather may be admired, but often we make corny jokes about who they may be circling, or say disparagingly, “Oh, that’s not an eagle, it’s just a vulture.” But they are cleansers for our planet, Cathartes aura means purifying air, and while they eat carrion they are very clean themselves. They have few predators, but will projectile vomit at attackers, and are accurate up to five feet. I am keeping my distance, but have come to admire this vulture and his species.
How this bird ended up off track here in our village of Otter Creek is a mystery. I do not know why he didn’t join his fellow buzzards as they left for Florida. I do not know if he will be able to survive the winter, although we will supply him with food. I don’t know if he will be here tomorrow, but I hope he will.
One lost turkey vulture has come into my life, and I have contacted local birders asking for suggestions to help his survival. It may be too late for him to join his fellows in Florida, and his chances of survival are probably not great. I never thought I would feel an affinity for one of these carrion-eating birds, but I do. I anthropomorphize and see the vulture sharing his space with a bunch of crows like a tolerant big brother. I see him in the tall pine, wondering where his mates have gone, and debating ready food versus starting the scary flight to Florida alone. I imagine that he knows he has found a place and friends that care about him. It is now minus four degrees Fahrenheit. The wind is blowing snow in blinding circles. Somewhere out in this wild night Vulcan has found a roost.
My mornings are spent looking out the window as I dress for work. With this weather, he would have a hard time finding food on the Florida trip, so I hope to see him here, where he will at least be fed though we cannot offer warmth. If he is not here tomorrow, I will hope he is headed south and makes it safely, if a little thinner. But I will never know if he has started his migration, or been frozen while sleeping. And he will never know that I am rooting for him.
Thank you to http://www.holoweb.com/cannon/turkedy.htm for the information about Union Oil Company
Published simultaneously at fromthecreek.com
Note: January 3, he is still here.