Turkey vultures

A pair of turkey vultures searches for more dead mice after finding three placed out for them earlier.

Q: "I'm emailing you because I just finished reading the piece you did with The Berkshire Eagle about black vultures last April. I was researching black vultures in Massachusetts because I saw one yesterday in the backyard in Deerfield! I was able to grab a couple videos. No one seems to be as excited as I am about it, so I figured you might be.

I was out with my chickens and though I know they prefer carrion, they can still find prey. I was in awe, they are so beautiful. I can see why they became your 'life bird.' I don't know a lot of the terms, but I am learning. I spend a lot of time on the Deerfield River and 21 acres out there on my land admiring the birds. (Many bald eagles, mergansers, mallards, wood duck, heron ...) The birds out there are amazing. I identified a yellow-rumped warbler last year, I had never seen one before."

— Danielle M., Deerfield, Mass.

A: I have never gotten a photograph of black vultures or seen even one in or over our yard. Yet from time to time, I will see a small (collective, committee, cast or soar) of turkey vultures circling low over the mowed field behind our house and last summer realized why.

Whenever I snap-trap a mouse in our garden shed or the garage, I empty it at the base of an evergreen shrub on the corner of our property. On an afternoon when three recent "dead mouse deposits" were made a couple of days earlier, I noticed the large black birds above the field. Later, I saw two turkey vultures walking around our yard, and looking under our shrubs. Of course, I took several images, one of which I have included with this column.

Some years ago, I found that vultures can be curious or perhaps tolerant scavengers. While birding in Sheffield with The Hoffmann Bird Club near Bartholomew's Cobble, we noticed some commotion in a field. We slowly approached and found that a bald eagle was consuming its prey (I cannot recall what it was). Surrounding the spectacle were vultures. I cannot say if they were waiting for the leftovers or enjoying the production.

In Walter Faxon and Ralph Hoffman's "Birds of Berkshire County" (1900), just the turkey vulture is mentioned and listed as an accidental visitor and more likely shot on sight than enjoyed as we do today.

In Bartlett Hendricks' "Berkshire Birds" (1950), the turkey vulture is listed as a summer visitor seen every year, but in such small numbers or so locally that they may easily be overlooked. The black is listed as a casual and accidental visitor with the only comment, "A bird found dead in Sheffield Dec. 21, 1932."

In Hendricks' third edition published in 1999, besides the black vulture mentioned again in 1932, he says one was seen in 1951, another in 1991, and "Since then as many as six had been seen in one day at Bartholomew's Cobble."

In David St. James' "Annotated List of The Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts" (2017), he informs the reader, "The Black Vulture population has exploded ... in recent years. Between 1932 and 1978, only 10 were confirmed. They continue to increase!"

The turkey vulture was first recorded in 1891, and it wasn't until 1927 when seven were seen in Sheffield. By 1952 a roost of more than 27 was recorded in Sheffield.

Not many breeding records for turkey vultures have been recorded. I recall my assistant at The Berkshire Museum discovered a nest in Dalton in June 2003, after hearing strange moaning sounds coming from between a narrow crevice between a large outcrop of schist not distant from The Appalachian Trail. He brought a few of us to see and photograph these young birds.

In Sheffield last summer, a black vulture was photographed by the owner of a barn who told me this was their third year. I hope to see the young if they pair return.

There are subtle differences between the two species:

While black vultures hunt by sight, turkey vultures hunt by sight and smell. One afternoon some years ago, while pulling into our driveway in Dalton, I noticed a lone vulture circling over the side yard. When I parked the car, I saw our Cairn terrier asleep on the picnic bench after having found something dead and smelly to roll in.

When sky watching and a sizeable hawk-like bird is spotted, those with wings held straight out are eagles or hawks, those with a slight "V" are vultures, and the tips of their wings are finger-like. They float so effortlessly because they are riding the thermal air currents, especially on sunny days when the ground below is warming.

While growing up, probably after watching so many cowboy movies, I thought buzzards were only Western birds. And maybe, at one time, they may have been. I find it interesting when "new" species arrive. And both birds were a new species for me, having moved north, not east.

These scavengers with featherless heads, red for turkey vultures and black or dark gray for black vultures, have a bad reputation because they eat dead stuff (carrion). Their baldness prevents the buildup of blood and flesh particles. In fact, they are doing a service, being members of nature's sanitation department, preventing disease and saving taxpayer money by assisting the highway department.

We, or most of us, are suspicious of meat or eggs left unrefrigerated for any length of time. Vultures can consume roadside kill days old and not get sick because of a digestive system with additives (special acids) that destroy anthrax, botulism and cholera bacteria.

There are three species of vultures found wild in this country, we mention two here. Do you know the third?