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Beacons of the Macabre

Conjuring the creepy, perched high above, on the outstretched limbs of dead trees and the roof tops of desolate homesteads, during the hazy grey of dusk and dawn large, black ominous birds of death roost together communally. Hallmarks of horror, the turkey vulture has been deemed a beacon of the macabre, however, they are more useful than fiendish and although they ooze an ominous aura, this birds’ sinister, tell tale hunch, jet black feathers and blood red, bald head are all mainstays of a perfectly designed cleaning machine.

It’s no coincidence these birds are seen in communal roosts this time of year. Having just finished rearing their chicks, it’s time to regroup with their communities, seek out warm, safe roosting spots and get ready for the colder weather. However, it is a coincidence that this natural cycle of life for them, synchs up perfectly with the manacle happenings of Halloween.

However, these frightening birds need not cause fear. Although they look spooky, they are a needed element in our delicate ecosystem. Cloaked in clandestine mystery, turkey vultures were specifically built to desecrate the dead, stop the spread of disease and rid our environment of rotting carcasses; a dirty job indeed, and one these birds take on with precision and verve.

We should be praising them for their service not fearing them for their presence. Without these natural “garbage men” road kill would be rampant with disease and carrion would be crawling with unwanted creepies.

If we flip the switch on our perception, we can view turkey vultures as majestic beings and unique birds, designed with function at the forefront. Their bald, red heads make them the perfect machine for delving into rotting carcasses, enabling them to feast on decaying flesh that would make other animals sick. This ability, coupled with their power posse of acidic digestive juices and their ultra intense sense of smell (which is highly unusually for birds) makes them ideal for their position. With no feathers on their head to capture bacteria from rotting flesh and urine infused with a high amount of uric acid, used to rid their legs of diseased bacteria, these birds are self cleaning enigmas of nature who are intelligent enough to clean their wings by exposing them to heated sunlight.

Seeking out dead trees as roosting locations is not one of morbid showmanship, but instead a testament to their intelligence. When landing in a tree with leaves on it, the strength and size of the branch is unknown, but in a dead tree’s landing area is visible and calculable, explains Jenny Dickson, Wildlife Biologist with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Weighing between just three to four pounds, turkey vultures, which are a federally protected species, can glide gracefully without a wing flap for hours, using thermal drafts to stay aloft. They have an impressive wing span of six feet and a life span of approximately 20 years in the wild.

Devoted parents, they begin to couple up in March and lay their usual two eggs on rock ledges on in safe crevices. According Dickson, it takes baby turkey vultures ten weeks before they are able to fly, a much longer maturing time than most birds.

“During this time of year (October) is when the birds become more communal and are often seen in groups roosting in trees and on roof tops,” explains Dickson. She adds that most turkey vultures over winter in Connecticut, because there is a steady supply of food and no need for them to migrate to follow a food source.

With DNA that links them to the stork family and not raptors, turkey vultures have little ability to defend themselves, so when faced with adversity they use their natural defense; their inherent disgustingness, and vomit a powerful, putrid regurgitation that has not only an intensely offensive smell, but also a highly corrosive make-up; a forceful deterrent for most.

Admired by some for their unique design, elevated intelligence and divine distinctness, Christine Cummings, a wildlife rehabilitator at a Place Called Hope Killingworth, is not alone when she calls turkey vultures “cool birds”.

“I love them, they are much more complex and interesting than people think they are and contrary to popular belief, they are not a threat at all to humans or pets. They only eat dead things,” says Cummings, who has had the fortunate experience of working face to face with these amazing avians. Currently, Ruby the turkey vulture calls A Place Called Hope her permanent home, where she is admired and respected for all of her unique qualities.

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