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Outdoors: Keep an eye out for turkey vultures

You may have noticed several turkey vultures circling in the sky since early spring. They’re even being seen in the West end of Allentown when a woman posted on a blog that one landed in her backyard.

Vultures, sometimes called buzzards and when I was a kid my dad would refer to them as chicken hawks, are blackish birds with long wingspans that are commonly soaring in wide circles as they seek out carrion to eat. They’re often referred to as nature’s vacuum cleaners as they’ll feast on dead and road killed carrion on roads, fields and forests. They’ll subsequently leave but a trace of what that animal was. And if you could get close to them, they stink. Wonder why?

Two weeks ago, as I drove along Willow Street in North Whitehall Township and about 50 yards West of the blacktop plant there, I noticed a sizable road killed doe (antlerless deer) laying on the grass by a sharp curve sign. Evidently it was hit during the night. The next day when I drove past the same spot there were nine vultures surrounding the deer carcass and all that could be seen were the deer’s head, its ribs and a leg. They picked it clean. When I drove past last Friday, there was no trace of anything but the grass there was cut and presumably the grass cutter moved the remaining bones so he wouldn’t ruin his mower blades.

In early morning hours, vultures can be seen perched in trees, on a building or barn like one on Mauch Chunk Road in South Whitehall Township. They’ll often perch near a dead animal and when their wings dry, these scavengers will converge on a carcass.

There are seven species of vultures in North America according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC). Pennsylvania has the turkey vulture and the black vulture, with the former being the more common. Both are protected by game laws says the PGC.

Adult vultures average about 30 inches in length and have wingspans up to six feet. When they soar, their wings rock and tilt as they circle an area.

While their bodies are feather covered, their heads and neck are unfeathered, perhaps because of their eating habits. Adults have pink heads and necks and in young birds their skin areas are blackish.

All vultures have a heavy bill with a sharp hook at the end for tearing fur and flesh. And their toes have strong, curved talons to hold the carcass as they pull pieces from the carrion.

Interestingly, vultures are voiceless as they lack a voice box. But they can hiss and grunt, says the PGC.

Vultures have keen eyesight and an extremely sharp sense of smell. They use both to locate carrion. It’s been said that as they soar, vultures can smell carrion before they see it.

Like a glider plane, vulture’s broad wings can hold them aloft and they use rising air currents to maintain or even increase altitude without flapping its wings as most birds do. They make use of thermal updrafts to keep them airborne. On rainy days they’ll often stay on their roosts.

Aside from dead carrion, they’ll eat fish, snakes, domestic animals, even killing smaller birds.

Breeding habitats include areas not accessible by predators such as cliffs, hollow logs, stumps, dense thickets, abandoned farm buildings, snag of a dead tree and an above ground tree cavity. The PGC notes that vultures make little or no nest as they deposit their eggs on the ground in gravel, on ledges, on rotted sawdust or chips in logs and stumps. The female lays 1-3 eggs and both parents share incubation that takes from 30-40 days. The young stay in the nest for about four weeks and they’ll eat regurgitated carrion from their parents. Upon fledging, the young will join groups of eight or more adults.

Turkey vultures are a year-round resident of Pennsylvania and are a common migrant in late February and March. Most TVs, as birders call them, winter in the southern U.S., Middle America and South America.

For now, when you see several circling overhead, they’re normally looking for their next meal. Their favorite pursuit.

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