I have a personal rule about bird guiding in late July. Don’t.
At this time in summer, most birds have stopped singing. Many have finished their baby-raising chores and are disinterested in showing themselves for any reason. The remaining active parents likewise prefer the family go unnoticed. July birding is hard.
Fortunately, there’s an uptick in bird feeder activity as the young come in to dine with the adults. Hummingbird feeders go a little quiet in early July, while the female is still on the nest. When the nestlings fledge, suddenly it’s hard to keep the nectar full.
Normally, I’d rhapsodize about all the beautiful songbirds that have kept us entertained for the last two months. Instead, I offer a 180-degree twist, with an ode to potentially the homeliest bird in Maine — the turkey vulture.
Sure, it’s hard to love a bald bird with the dress and demeanor of a mortician. (I look forward to reading all the forthcoming comments from morticians on the Bangor Daily News website.) There’s actually a lot to love.
Like all scavengers, vultures play an important role in nature, helping to limit the spread of disease. In fact, the stomach acid of a turkey vulture is so strong that it can devour the victims of rabies, anthrax and other deadly diseases with total immunity.
A hundred years ago, turkey vultures were ultra-rare in Maine. They began wandering northward in the 1950s, but the first nesting birds in Maine weren’t discovered until 1982. They’ve been proliferating ever since, and can now be seen as far north as the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.
Cold weather doesn’t appear to deter them. Turkey vultures are year-round residents down to the frosty southern tip of Argentina, yet they are year-round residents in North America only across the southern states. That also may be changing. I now see them in New Hampshire in winter, and they are starting to appear north of the Piscataqua River in the colder months.
Even though there are now plenty of nesting turkey vultures in Maine, it’s wicked hard to find their nests. Vultures are generally comfortable around human settlements, yet their nesting habits are peculiar and secretive.
They nest in enclosed surroundings, typically small indentations on remote cliffs, but also in caves and hollow logs. They’ll use the abandoned nests of other large birds, but won’t make any improvements. More recently, they’ve been content to nest in old buildings with missing windows.
Maine is nearing the end of a five-year project to map the nesting whereabouts of all its breeding bird species. As expected, turkey vultures are widely reported in flight, but seldom reported on a nest. Only a handful of actual nesting sites have been confirmed in the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas, even though observations have occurred in big numbers across the state.
It shouldn’t be that hard. Vultures are gregarious. On a visit to the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray a few years ago, I was amused to see a pen full of vultures rehabilitating from injuries. Undeterred, a flock of wild, healthy vultures was draped all over the trees above the cage. It was simply in their nature to hang out together.
In much of the country, turkey vultures share the sky with their cousins, the black vultures, which have a more southerly range. This species is also moving north, and soon may become a Maine breeder.
Black vultures will occasionally attack living prey. Turkey vultures rarely do. They have an extraordinarily keen sense of smell, and can find carrion hidden beneath the deepest forest cover. They also have excellent eyesight, handy for spotting a meal at great distances.
Since their prey is immobile, vultures have little use for speed. Their wings are adapted to soar slowly and effortlessly. Except for takeoffs and landings, vultures try their best not to flap. They typically don’t go airborne until the air is warm enough to rise.
Turkey vultures are large enough to discourage predators. It’s not uncommon to see vultures standing next to an eagle, feasting over the same roadkill. However, a vulture on a nest might find itself in a vulnerable spot.
In such cases, its chief defense is to vomit on the intruder. Given the dietary preferences of vultures, that’s usually a sufficient deterrent.
Vomit defense is just one of the repulsive behaviors employed by turkey vultures. On hot days, they poop on their own legs, letting evaporation cool them off. Small wonder that throughout human history, vultures have not made good pets.