‘Nature’s Garbage Collectors’ Don’t Charge Disposal Fee

Turkey vultures roost in the tall trees of Montauk State Park in winter.

Turkey vultures roost in the tall trees of Montauk State Park in winter.

Four birders on a December 2011 outing to Ha Ha Tonka State Park focused their binoculars on a green tag attached to the wing of one of 28 roosting turkey vultures. The tag said E43.

They reported their finding to the Bird Banding Laboratory operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. The center said the tag was attached to the bird in August 2011 in Saskatchewan, Canada, when it was too young to fly.

Although not yet a year old when spotted at Ha Ha Tonka, the young turkey vulture had flown nearly 1,200 miles to get to the park on the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. Ha Ha Tonka is one of several state parks in Missouri where flocks of vultures roost in winter.

The long-distance flight was not a surprise to Edge Wade, a self-proclaimed “birding bum” from Columbia, who was among the four birders. She is an admirer of the species that she affectionately referred to as “nature’s garbage collectors.”

Turkey vultures are the ugly ducklings of the bird world.

Turkey vultures are the ugly ducklings of the bird world.

With red crinkly skin on a bald head and dark plumage, turkey vultures would finish last in any birding beauty contest. But they are marvelously adapted for their job of finding and eating rotting carrion, including road kill.

With a digestive system that renders toxins harmless, a turkey vulture can dine on a diseased carcass, and come back for seconds.

They have no syrinx, the vocal organ of birds, but sometimes grunt or hiss when disturbed. The pink feet are flat, and relatively weak, giving it an ungainly, hopping walk. The beak is short, hooked and whitish; the nostrils are perforated.

In another unsavory, but effective, trait, a turkey vulture that has just gorged on a meal will disgorge it just as fast at an approaching predator. The practice allows the vulture to lighten itself for a quick takeoff, and also distracts the predator with a stream of acidic digestive juices.

Wade, who is retired, is a member of the Audubon Society of Missouri and helped set up its website, MoBirds.org, which tracks bird sightings listed by volunteers. On that website, SPARKS is the link for birding data at Missouri State Parks and CACHE has sightings at state conservation areas.

Data from the site led birders to conclude that turkey vultures, like other species, are spending their winters farther north, possibly because of climate changes.

Black vultures, which have black skin on their heads, have shorter wings and tails than turkey vultures. Turkey vultures are common across Missouri in summer; they usually are found south of the Missouri River in winter. Black vultures normally are found in the southernmost counties of the state.

Large numbers of vultures congregate in Missouri state parks in winter, especially at the three popular trout parks – Montauk, Bennett Spring and Roaring River, which is the farthest south and hosts more black vultures. Other state parks with wintering vultures include Rock Bridge, Trail of Tears, Cuivre River, Lake of the Ozarks and, of course, Ha Ha Tonka.

Turkey vultures are opportunistic flyers. They are fond of bluffs next to a body of water where warm thermals rising in the morning help them gain loft. They can circle for hours, maneuvering with the slightest tilt of their six-foot wings in a teetering flight pattern. They stretch their wings in a horizontal V when flying, revealing gray or silvery feathers on the undersides along the trailing edge and wingtips.

Hundreds of turkey vultures were roosting in a valley of tall sycamores on a late afternoon drive through Montauk State Park near Salem in mid-November. On a return visit to the same spot barely an hour later, every bird had disappeared, like ghosts in the night.

The disappearing act is just one reason why Steve Bost, the park’s interpretive resource specialist, also is an admirer of the species. He gives nature talks on turkey vultures to park visitors in a program titled “Roadkill Café.”

Bost said Montauk has one of the largest roosting flocks in the state, somewhere between 250 and 400 birds. He said the flock gets bigger every year.

Bost figures the vultures like the park because it’s safe – “They won’t get shot here” – and the release of trout occasionally results in a fish carcass waiting in the morning. It is illegal to harm turkey vultures inside or outside of state parks; they are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Bost said vultures may not be pretty, but they are quite intelligent. He relayed the story of a woman who does rehab work with owls, hawks and eagles and her experience with turkey vultures. She received a turkey vulture and, in a couple of days, it did more tricks and bonded quicker than any other bird she’d ever had. In fact, the vulture would follow her around and could untie her shoes.

Written by Tom Uhlenbrock, Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of State Parks.