The Vultures of West Main 2014.04.16

buzzardsBy DAVID GREEN

How can something so ugly be so beautiful?

That’s pretty much how Morenci resident Rose Brown sees the turkey vulture—and she sees plenty of them.

Her yard on the west edge of Morenci is "vulture central" and it has been for years. Rose has lived in her house for 50 years and she thinks the vultures may have gathered in her trees for at least half of that time.

Every evening starting in the spring, vultures congregate in the trees to roost for the night. Then they’re off in the morning for their daily adventures.

“I think they decide what to do for the day,” Rose said.

She doesn’t know how close it is to the same day of the year when they make their return to Morenci—like the famous buzzards of Hinckley, Ohio—but she is sure that a couple scouts appear in the area before the masses arrive.

When she calls turkey vultures ugly, she’s referring to the bald red head and big white beak. Vultures don't have what most people would refer to as a pretty face, and they look so ungainly when they're hopping around the ground stripping the flesh from some road kill.

But when they're airborne, it's a different matter.

"Even though they have such ugly heads," Rose said, "they have a beautiful wingspan. It's just gorgeous."

If you think the adults are ugly, said Jack Brink, another vulture neighbor, you should see the chicks.

“Kurt Johnson once found a nest in the woods,” he said. “They’re covered with white fuzz when they’re young. Really ugly.”

But airborne adults...he’s a fan along with Rose.

“I like to watch them,” he said. “It’s just amazing how they can pick up those air currents.”

And how many vultures are roosting in that neighborhood?

"I've tried to count them, but they move around so fast," Rose said. 

Kym Ries, who lives next door to Rose, knows that someone from the nearby apartment complex once reached 44 when he was counting, but that might be on the short side now.

"There are so many more this year," she said. 

Kym has read that vultures have been known to roost in the same area for a 100 years or more. She seems them coming in late in the day two or three at a time. They use the trees in her yard and they also gather in the small woodlot to the west. The birds there look smaller to her and she wonders if the juveniles stay together in that area.

Kym said birds roost together primarily in the spring and fall. During the summer, she will see some fly over, but they apparently have a different location for roosting.

She's impressed with their flying also as she has watched them ride warm air currents for lengthy soaring trips. 

Vultures drop some feathers in her yard and regurgitate little clumps of debris, but they make no noise and she considers them interesting neighbors.

It’s true that they’re an interesting bird, Jack said. He’s heard that pipeline companies sometimes use them to locate gas line leaks due to their keen sense of smell.

The odor that gas companies add to the otherwise odorless natural gas is also a chemical emitted by rotting flesh, and the birds track it down.

“I don’t have any trouble with them if I get them out of my tree,” Jack said.

He doesn’t appreciate the mess they leave behind on the ground, so he and his wife, Ola, clap their hands a few times and two or three dozen birds suddenly take flight.

Rose appreciates the vultures, too, although she doesn't let her little dog out in the evenings. She knows her odd-looking feathered friends do a service in nature by cleaning up dead animals, and that leads her to joke about herself.

"I'm 92 years old," she said. "I think they're waiting for Rose."

A few facts about turkey vultures:

• When they're spotted in the sky making big circles, are they really watching a dying animal in its final minutes? It's just a myth. They're powerful fliers and ride thermals of air during hot days. 

• Vultures prefer fresh meat, but they'll feast on dead carcasses that other animals will no longer touch. This gives them an important role in nature to prevent the spread of disease.

• They have a strong stomach acid that kills the bacteria in the rotting flesh that they eat. Rather than transporting flesh to their young, vultures eat heartily at the site, then return to the nest and regurgitate into the mouths of the young.

• Vultures have an excellent sense of sight and smell. They can locate a dead animal from a mile away or more. Because of this, their territories are large and they often spend a lot of time soaring and looking for food.

• Vultures in this part of the world lack a syrinx (a bird's vocal chord) and they have no song. Instead, the only noises they make are hisses and grunts. 

• When threatened, a dining vulture may vomit to lighten the load for a quicker escape. It also serves to deter predators, although vulture have few enemies.

• Vultures generally lay eggs on the ground with little or no nest.

• There are 23 species of vultures around the world, found in a variety of habitats. Fourteen species are considered threatened or endangered.

• When vultures gather on the west edge of Morenci, the proper name for the group is a committee. When in flight, vultures are a kettle. When several are feeding together, it's called a wake of vultures.