Deer Dogs with Wings

When you lose a deer you’ve shot, turkey buzzards can either be your best friends or your worst enemies.

“Damn buzzard!” the hunter muttered under his breath as he signed his name across the bottom of the check.It was no consolation that he wasn’t the first deer club rule violator brought to justice by an ugly black bird who makes its living from death. While several fellow club members doubted the hunter’s story about shooting at and missing a 6-pointer a few days earlier, it took a buzzard to provide the corpus delecti.

Yes sir, the bird and several of his buddies soaring overhead had led a couple of members to the prima facie evidence — a partially-decayed 4-point buck. Four points in this club were a no-no, and making the mistake of shooting one, in addition to chastisement, also brought about a stiff economic penalty.

Instead of fessing up and taking his punishment like a man, this shooter decided to take his chances that no one would find the deer in the remote location he had killed it, and fabricated the 6-point story.

But when neither the best at blood trailing nor a sharp-nosed tracking dog can locate a downed deer, the buzzard rarely fails.

Turkey “vultures,” as they are correctly called, come equipped to live up to the nickname, “Deer Dogs with Wings.” Actually they are capable of smelling feats even the best retriever can only dream about.

Turkey vultures have an extraordinary sense of smell. They have been known to smell carrion (dead meat) from over a mile away, which is quite unique in the bird world. They have the largest olfactory system of all birds.

Turkey buzzards, often mistaken for the king of all game birds, the turkey, are kind of like an old hag with a great shape and long flowing hair. She looks great at a distance, but the closer you get, the uglier she gets. At close range, the adult’s naked red head causes confusion with gobblers, hence the name “turkey vulture” or “turkey buzzard.” Like other vultures, the turkey vulture has a bald head. Not out of heredity or worry, but out of design — this is so bits of carrion do not adhere to the skin as they would to feathers.

Actually, in Louisiana, we have two distinct species of vultures: the turkey vulture and the black vulture. The black, being smaller, has white wing tips, flaps its wings more often when soaring, is much more aggressive and is more often found in large flocks.

As ferocious as they appear, turkey buzzards are really pretty wimpy as far as birds of prey and scavengers go. They are the only scavengers not capable of killing their prey, except for small or young birds, mammals and frogs.

Ever get a close look at their useless feet? They look more like those of a chicken than of a hawk. But their beaks, now that’s a different story. Their powerful beaks can bust through even the toughest deer hide, and tear off strips of road-kill jerky. They feed by thrusting their heads into body cavities of rotting animals. They start their meal with the eyes as an appetizer, followed by the softer underside and, eventually, the more solid muscle tissue. Got to be a better way, you say?

By human and animal kingdom standards, these guys’ habits are about as nasty as it gets. They seem to have a propensity to upchuck their latest meal. But there’s a reason for it.

You see, vultures gorge themselves, and sometimes get so full they are too heavy to take off, and must wait until digestion takes place. You know, kind of like your cousin’s brother-in-law at the family crawfish boil.

But when this activity takes place a little too close to the shoulder of the highway or if a hunter happens to walk up and surprises a satiated buzzard, it may unload its putrid dinner in order to make a quick exit.

It gets worse. During the hot summer months, turkey vultures will defecate on their feet to cool them off. Even the brother-in-law draws the line on that one.

Turkey buzzards are pretty sloppy when it comes to housekeeping too. They don’t actually build nests like other, more affluent birds. They are known to nest in remote, hard-to-reach locations, as if someone would actually like to visit one of these foul-smelling rookeries.

Some of the strangest documented nest sites include the floor of an old, neglected barn, 6 feet below the ground in a rotted stump and in a dead tree with the nest 14 feet below the cavity entrance.

There seem to be some regular places where turkey and black vultures like to congregate, and they aren’t very pleasant places to visit, at least the ones I’ve stumbled upon aren’t. Not only do they stink, the trees are often dead, having been killed by repeated regurgitation and defecation.

Disgusting as their personal hygiene may be when roosting or feeding, you’ve got to give it to ’em: Turkey and black vultures are poetry in the sky. Because of their light weight (even though they average 2 ½ feet long with up to a 6-foot wingspan, they weigh only 3 pounds), turkey vultures can virtually float in the sky using thermal currents to get around. This technique uses very little energy as they rarely need to flap their wings.

Legend has it that hawks will watch vultures to find and take advantage of thermals. Turkey vultures can swoop up to 60 m.p.h. in order to avoid being mobbed by crows, ravens and blue jays.

In addition to their strong sense of smell, they, like hawks, have excellent eyesight, and can spot dying or dead animals from high in the air. Groups of vultures spiraling upward to gain altitude are called “kettles.” As they catch thermal updrafts, they take on the appearance of water boiling in a pot, thus the name, kettle.

Aircraft pilots have recorded turkey vultures as high as 20,000 feet, and the birds soar for hours without so much as a single flap. Turkey vultures have been known to live up to 24 years with the average estimated to be around 20.

Apparently, not everyone regards Mother Nature’s clean-up crew with disgust. In California’s Kern River Valley, they celebrate an annual Turkey Vulture Festival in late September. It’s complete with booths, exhibits, kid’s activities and a special kettle observation count. I’m not sure if any vulture recipes are served since they are, after all, federally protected. And I can only assume having a Miss Turkey Buzzard pageant is an idea whose time simply hasn’t come.

In Louisiana we do actually have a city named in honor of the turkey vulture. The city of Carencro in Lafayette Parish is named after “carrion crow,” a nickname for the turkey vulture. My guess would be its something about having the state’s cleanest roads and sidewalks.

Turkey vultures, despite their trailer trash reputations, make pretty responsible parents. The closest relative of the turkey buzzard is, surprisingly, the stork, and it is only distantly related to birds of prey.

However, like eagles, hawks, kites and falcons, vultures are dependent on their parents for a relatively long period. The young vultures are covered with down, except for their bald heads, and spend 10-14 weeks in the nest. Bet you can guess how they are fed. You got it, the old regurgitation trick.

Vultures are commonly seen along highways sharing some road kill fare along with crows and possums, probably more often than they’re spotted in the woods.

Keeping the woodlands and the highways clean is a nasty job, but somebody’s go to do it. For all their lack of beauty and grace, they are pretty fascinating critters, and besides turning in dishonest hunters, they actually serve a useful purpose in nature.

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