Snoqualmie Valley’s Polite Bird of Prey: the Turkey Vulture

[Article by Melissa Grant, North Bend resident, wildlife enthusiast, pet trainer and owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs]

So, when I sat down to write this latest article my intention was to write about all the birds of prey in the Snoqualmie Valley. I was having a hard time getting started and soon realized it was too large of a topic to tackle in a single sitting. I went through my list of 22 birds, researching them one at a time trying to decide which bird I would start with and settled upon the one who is in the process of heading south for the winter.

When I first moved to North Bend I would see small groups of large birds soaring overhead. “Eagles!”, I thought, and at the time was disappointed to find out that usually I wasn’t seeing the majestic eagle, but its wobbly cousin, the Turkey Vulture.

Now that I know more about this bird I’m not entirely sure why initially I was disappointed I wasn’t seeing eagles. The Turkey Vulture is infinitely more interesting, (Disclaimer: If you are squeamish about bodily functions this may not be the article for you), a little gross maybe, but interesting.

I had my first close encounter with one of these birds of prey last summer when one perched on a snag (dead tree) in a ravine near our backyard in North Bend. I saw a large shape and walked out to investigate, only to have him turn and eye me somewhat malevolently from his branch. Large birds – with a wingspan of up to 6 feet – they are only outsized by the eagle and condor. I previously thought they were black, but when I zoomed in with my camera I realized their feathers are brownish with a silvery underside. As this turkey vulture turned to regard me, I noticed his head was naked of feathers – bright red with a pale ivory hooked beak. The naked head helps protect these birds from diseases that could burrow into feathers.

We watched each other for several long minutes before he or she took off in a slow majestic swoop.

Even though they are spooky in appearance, it is a myth that they circle dying things waiting to feed. Unlike other birds who have a very poor sense of smell and rely on sight to catch prey, these birds have an excellent sense of smell and can locate a meal from a mile away or more. But because of weak feet and legs, they eat recently dead carrion or wait for another animal to kill prey and then join in for the meal.

This fact caused a raptor expert I spoke to call Turkey Vultures the “Politest bird of prey.”

I later learned vultures are social creatures and often feed, fly and roost in groups. A flying group is called a kettle because of their way of spiraling upwards catching thermal drafts that gives them the appearance of water boiling in a pot. A group feeding together is a wake and a committee is a group resting in trees. Lacking a syrinx (the vocal organ of birds), those groups are largely silent, punctuated by an occasional grunt or hiss. 

Carnivorous birds, they eat carrion almost exclusively. They prefer the recently dead, but because of stronger stomach acids are able to consume carcasses that may have rotted so much that the meat can be toxic to other animals. For this reason, vultures play an important role in that they help prevent the spread of diseases from old, rotting corpses. Some cultures even use vultures in a funeral practice called a sky burial in which a human corpse is placed on a mountain top to decompose and be disposed of by scavenging animals.

The turkey vulture experienced a dip in numbers in the 1950’s and 60’s due to pesticides, but their conservation status is currently “least concern.” This is a very good thing, if they disappeared we could see a rise in some diseases, including anthrax and brucellosis in livestock, which could then spread to people.

The vulture’s stronger stomach acid also works as an effective method of self-defense. Even though they have little to fear and have few natural predators, if they do feel threatened they can react handily – by inducing vomiting. Yup, defense by foul-smelling acidic projectile vomit (although our proud eagles are known to eat it as part of their diet). I know I’ll probably avoid surprising any vultures in the future after reading that little tidbit.

These birds form longterm pair bonds by hopping in a circle in a ritualized display. They breed and both parents tend the eggs. They build virtually no nest. The eggs lay in a protected area for 28 days. The parents then take turns tending their young and going out to collect food, which they then regurgitate for the chicks. The fledglings begin to take short flights at 9 or 10 weeks and leave the nesting area 1 to 3 weeks later.

Our Turkey Vultures are now migrating to Central and South America, but will be back in late winter.  Look for their signature wobbly soar in February, but again, never sneak up on a Turkey Vulture.

Turkey vulture in flight, often looking similar to an eagle.

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  • Wonderful information for us fowl affectionados in Western Washington! I never saw one of these birds in the Upper Valley until about 1985. Then, one day, about ten of them circled our farmhouse and landed in the Weyerhaeuser fir trees next door. A dead deer in our back pasture had drawn them. They seem to be pretty prevalent now, especially on Meadowbrook Farm. I expect the elk (on Meadowbrook for the past 21 years) have given them good reason to visit. Thanks for posting!

  • You missed the best (grossest?) part. They urinate on their legs to keep themselves cool, and to kill bacteria on their legs. That’s a trait a lot of geriatric birders can really appreciate.

    1. I KNOW! I realized I forgot urohydrosis after I sent it to Danna. I was trying to do too much at once. I kind think the vomit defense is grosser myself 🙂

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