Turkey vultures make good neighbours.
February 13, 2017
In Eastern Ontario turkey vultures arrived in 1969. We didn’t know what these strange birds were. Thinking it was a goose, my room-mate from Toronto shot one. That was my one up-close encounter with this spectacularly ugly bird. Its beak was strange. I could see through it: a big hole for nostrils with what must have been scenting equipment lying below the holes. But the consistency of the beak was even stranger. It reminded me a great deal of my thumb nail, flexible and not very thick.
A Canada Goose would be a more formidable predator than this critter.
While commuting to Smiths Falls for my first teaching job I began to pay attention to these ungainly birds after I noticed how a pair had figured out Hwy. 15 traffic. A tasty bit of carrion lay on the pavement near the centre line on an open section of road. These two evidently had decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to fly away from their feast every time a car came by. They simply stepped across the centre line to the other lane and waited for me to pass. That was pretty smart.
Turkey vultures always loved the buildings on the farm, especially the tall Victorian house jutting up from the side of the hill. I gradually realized that the expert sail planers were using the air currents for altitude. A couple of loops around the roof of the brick house on a hot day and the bird would be off on his afternoon glide. The lazy birds love to glide, and put considerable intelligence into perfecting their craft.
Many years later I was forced to abandon the barn on the property when the foundation collapsed but the timbers still held the thing in place a few feet downhill from its original position. It was too dangerous to enter. Expecting a quiet abode due to the diminished activity, a pair of ravens spent the late winter building a nest somewhere on the second floor, but then they abandoned it because I persisted in mowing the lawn around the barn. A family of vultures sat on the peak of the smooth metal roof of the barn and pondered these developments. Eventually they decided that my wife and I were harmless, though they made themselves scarce if strangers came around.
So for the last three years we’ve gotten to know a group of five turkey vultures. It’s clear their evolutionary advantage is their brain power. They recognize human faces. They observe. One of the summers I conducted trench warfare with the local raccoon population over a stand of sweet corn in my garden. After I had live-trapped and euthanized sixteen raccoons and had harvested a mere three dozen ears of corn, I gave up. By that time the vultures had learned that if I started my UTV and drove it down the hill to the garden, game was afoot. They’d be circling my carcass-dumping ground in a distant field by the time I got there.
Waking up in the morning is a chore for turkey vultures. The sun gradually thaws them out and they extend their wings a little bit and they seem to freeze there. Then the wings go out a little further to let the dew dry off. Much later, someone will try a tentative flap or two. Eventually one will catch a breeze and lift off the peak of the barn.
Then one morning I watched a sleepy vulture put a foot wrong and begin to slide down the long, smooth slope of the roof. He didn’t panic and flap, just controlled his slide, gained speed, and gently lifted off in a glide. From then on more and more of them tried this approach at the first hint of a breeze in the morning. They seemed to get a big kick out of their playground slide.
This year it was clear that someone was nesting in the barn, rather than merely using it as a roost. That fact slipped my mind when I needed a trailer wheel from the abandoned barn, so I wiggled through a collapsing door, hopped four feet across a chasm onto the rickety second floor, and with some trepidation located the trailer wheel. I heard a scuffle behind me and turned around to see a large turkey vulture frantically trying to fly straight up and over a beam 14′ in the air, and then make her way across two other similar beams and down through the open door to the other bay of the barn.
Turkey vultures don’t look all that big when they’re 200′ in the air. Inside an empty hay mow, trying to escape, the same bird is huge.
After the insult to his mate, the largest of the birds circled me steadily whenever I was outside the house. Then I guess he forgave me.
A couple of months later the barn fell down. It was far from sudden. At first it sounded like a heavily-loaded farm wagon being towed down the paved hill road, over bumps, but with no wheels. This went on for about fifteen minutes, amid a great cloud of dust. It had been very dry. The lime mortar in one section of the wall must have failed and the wall fell apart.
The vultures were quite perturbed about this noisy re-location of their home, but they continued to perch on the collapsed roof for several days, then one by one they went away. Except for one. She maintained a vigil over her lost nest for two weeks to the day. Others came back to visit her, but I don’t think she left to feed or drink, though I wasn’t watching all of the time. And then she was gone.
I should mention in conclusion that I detest pigeons because of their filthy habits. Our turkey vultures were very tidy birds: there were no streaks on the steel of the barn roof, even after years of summer roosting. As neighbours they were polite and clean. While up close they were far from beautiful, when aloft they moved with grace and elegance.
Not bad neighbours at all.