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Twirling turkey vultures win the hearts of staff

March 20, 2018

When you ask the staff at Wild ARC about the two turkey vultures that were recently released, their faces light up – these quirky birds quickly became a staff favourite this past winter. You might be thinking that a bird who poops on its own feet on purpose, vomits when frightened and survives mainly on rotting flesh might be hard to love but turkey vultures are incredible birds with a fascinating natural history.

Some interesting facts about turkey vultures:

  • Turkey vultures play an incredibly important role in the ecosystem: They are our cleanup crew from the skies, eating the rotting flesh of deceased animals that other meat-eaters wouldn’t even consider. This is important because they dispose of carrion that would otherwise be a breeding ground for disease.
Photo credit: Don Ingalls
  • They have an incredible sense of smell, which is unusual in most bird species. They are able to locate their food by smell, flying low to catch a whiff of decomposing animals in the air currents.
  • Their sense of smell is beneficial to humans, too! Natural gas is odorless but companies add a substance called ethyl mercaptan to give the gas a smell so it can be detected by humans if there is a leak. Carrion also emit ethyl mercaptan and turkey vultures are attracted to that scent. Leaks in natural gas pipelines can been detected by watching for turkey vultures circling above the pipelines.
  • Turkey vultures are masters of the air and migrate almost entirely by gliding. They use rising thermals to gain height in the sky and can take advantage of the slightest updraft to minimize the amount of flapping (and therefore energy) needed to travel long distances.
  • The primary form of defense for a turkey vulture is regurgitating partially digested, foul smelling meat. Predators are deterred by the awful smell or, if they are close enough to have the vomit come in contact with their face or eyes, it can be very irritable. Regurgitating can also decrease the weight of the turkey vulture making it easier to fly away quickly from a predator.
  • Turkey vultures defecate on their legs, which actually helps to cool them down and the uric acid in their poop kills off any bacteria they may have picked up from the rotting flesh on which they feast.

The turkey vulture patients at Wild ARC:

Of the two turkey vultures admitted into care at Wild ARC this past winter, the first was by far the more complicated case. She* was found on the ground but after a thorough exam, there were no abnormalities found except the fact that she was a little skinny. After a few days in care and careful observation, staff at Wild ARC noticed she favoured her left leg and an x-ray showed she had a hairline fracture. Staff splinted the leg and it seemed she was feeling a bit better but after a few more days, her limp returned.

This time the x-ray showed a complete fracture that required surgery to insert a pin. It’s possible this Turkey vulture came into care with a nutrient deficiency affecting her bone integrity which could be why her fracture worsened. “It was very touch and go with this patient,” said Wild ARC Senior Wildlife Rehabilitator Marguerite Sans. “Not only did she need surgery to repair her fractured leg but she was also very quiet and not interested in eating. Staff had to hand-feed her bits of food to ensure she had enough nutrients to promote healing and keep her in good body condition.”

The prognosis for this patient was very guarded but not long after the surgery to repair the leg, this turkey vulture’s condition seemed to turn a corner. “She started eating on her own and became more active,” said Sans. “We were able to put her in our larger flight pen to give her space to fly and more enrichment to keep her occupied.”

The flight pen also housed the second turkey vulture in care. He* too was found on the ground after possibly being hit by a car. He had some wounds on his head, a drooping wing and some broken primary feathers. “Compared to the first turkey vulture, the second was easy to care for,” said Sans. “We cleaned his wounds and gave him time to heal and grow in his broken feathers. After that he was ready to be released.”

Twirling turkey vulture:

Staff released the two turkey vultures together on a warm, sunny day. The first immediately flew up to the trees and stretched her wings wide to absorb the sunlight; the second started twirling on the ground, also with his wings out-stretched.

One final interesting fact about turkey vultures: they tend to avoid crossing large bodies of water during migration. However, if you find yourself on Southern Vancouver Island in the fall, you may be lucky enough to see the turkey vultures who are brave enough to cross the Juan de Fuca Strait. They can be seen circling together in large numbers on a sunny day. They are catching the thermals that will bring them high into the sky, providing them with enough altitude to safely cross the water. It’s an incredible sight!

* Though the sex couldn’t be determined, for the purposes of this story the first Turkey vulture will be referred to as female while the second will be referred to as male.