The Secretive Turkey Vulture

There is a secretive nesting bird of Wisconsin, much of whose life’s story is steeped in mystery. Its seemingly effortless, soaring flight is beautiful to behold, perhaps unsurpassed by any native bird of our state. Unlike the typical “feeder” birds in one’s yard which can so easily be observed and studied, the Turkey Vulture remains as wild and wary as can be.

A close view of the Turkey Vulture’s head shows its pink skin and lack of feathers.

The first nesting record for Wisconsin was documented in the Oconto area in 1944 by the famous naturalist Carl Richter. LeRoy Lintereur, outstanding Department of Natural Resources game manager, found the next nest in the northeastern part of the state the next year.

Gradually new nestings were discovered, particularly in the Baraboo Hills, Kettle Moraine and along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. Turkey Vultures have increased nicely in number in Wisconsin during the past 25 years, apparently due in part to the growing deer herd and the increasing number of road kill for them to eat.

These huge birds with a six-foot wingspan choose very secluded nesting sites and consequently are difficult to locate and study. Researchers who have worked with them claim they have been royally initiated into field ornithology. When frightened or angered, Turkey Vultures have the nasty habit of regurgitating what has to be the vilest smelling matter imaginable.

It was a Turkey Vulture captured and banded by Dan Berger in the 1970s that produced the first recovery for this species in Wisconsin. The bird was recovered in November of that same year in British Honduras [now known as Belize].

The Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks are similar to Old World buteos (soaring hawks) that commonly are called buzzards. However, to call our huge soaring bird the Turkey Buzzard is totally incorrect.

The name Turkey Vulture is well chosen because of the adult bird’s red featherless head, well suited to being thrust into the bloody carcasses of dead animals. It is thought that the bird does not attain its red head until it is three or four-years-old. Young birds’ heads are blackish.

A Turkey Vulture’s bill is very unlike the seed-eating bill of a Wild Turkey. The Vulture’s is long, heavy and slightly hooked at the end, designed for tearing flesh. In spite of the size of the beak it supposedly is weak, at least according to the experts. Personally I’d want to keep my hands clear of this awesome appendage.

A very young nestling Turkey Vulture still has its downy white feathers.

These masters of the air currents have huge feet; however, these birds generally do not pounce on a kill like a hawk does and, consequently, its toes are not hooked for grasping and killing, and neither are they strong.

Due to the large size of the bird, 100 or more days are required from the time the eggs are laid until the young bird can fly. The eggs may be laid in remote areas in caves, abandoned buildings, edges of bluffs, in the top of a large hollowed-out stump or on the ground in a dense thicket. Little to no nesting material is used.

Of considerable importance is that the nest be placed where the eggs and young will be inaccessible to predators. Sadly these really good secluded Turkey Vulture nesting sites are becoming scarcer as population of humans grows and development increases.

Many travelers to the South soon become familiarized with both the Turkey and the Black Vultures. They are quite abundant there and perhaps are largely permanent residents. I strongly suspect that the Turkey Vultures that nest from southern Canada into the upper Midwest migrate to South America for winter, “leapfrogging” the permanent southern vultures. This happens with several other bird species as well.

It is said that to see Vulture and Buteo (a soaring hawk) migration at its finest one should go to Panama in October. Between 60,000 and 70,000 Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, Swainson’s Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks fly through this narrow bottleneck of land during that time.

A call to us on Aug. 14, 1988, from friends living near the shore at Little Sister Bay in northern Door County told of a large, strange bird-of-prey perched on the ground near their cottage. Their description lured us to investigate the find. One look and we nearly flipped with joy, an immature Turkey Vulture still “wrapped” in its cottony coat of whitish down. As has been said, it was a baby only its mother could love. How exciting it was to have a new nesting record for our county!

The flight of a Turkey Vulture usually has the wings held in a broad “V” pattern, unlike the flat horizontal shape of a Bald Eagle.

Some of the boys of neighboring families knew of the nest near the top of the bluff. The fledgling, about 15 or more inches tall, had apparently been pushed, or fell, over the edge of the bluff and had landed near the road below. After photographing the bird we suggested that the boys capture the juvenile vulture and return it to its cave nest, which they did.

The cave nest-site is about 20 feet deep horizontally. At the end are two small openings, one approximately 12 inches square, the other slightly smaller. It was these two cave extensions into which the baby vultures were able to crawl and hide ahead of our ornithologist friend, who unfortunately was unable to reach and to band the young birds.

The babies produced a scary rattling hiss all the time we were near them in the cave. Otherwise vultures are considered to be voiceless. What an absolutely superb nesting site it is, one that hopefully will be preserved.

We strongly suspect and hope that more Turkey Vulture nesting sites will be established in our county. Actually ideal conditions occur here, namely the steep bluffs contributing to good rising air thermals, much to the vultures’ liking, excellent caves and ledges for nesting, plenty of car-killed animals, dead fish washed ashore and a considerable amount of remote pieces of land offering the vultures nesting privacy.

The more I observe the Turkey Vulture the more I admire it. Its habit of eating dead animals surely is vital to maintaining a cleaner environment, and its unmatched elegance in the air, wings held upward at a high dihedral, thrill many people. Here is a perfect example of “beauty and the beast.”