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The Umstead Coalition 
Celebrating Umstead State Park since 1934!

The Turkey Vulture

07/15/2019 9:02 AM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

The more you know about Turkey Vultures, the more you can overlook some of the more unappealing aspects of their life.  Ancient Egyptians certainly did as they revered the vulture as the symbol of Nekht, the protector of the queen.  

For me however, I remember many times in the late afternoon where I would come across a vulture roost, mostly black vultures by the water, and they would silently and appraisingly stare at me with a calm certainty that one day I would be theirs.  The thing that gave me the willies was that I felt that just by being close to them that I was closer to death.  Once I even canoed a couple miles further down the Edisto River past a primo campsite because I didn’t want to camp near a roost of vultures.  I thought they might know something I didn’t and since there were alligators on the river and I was alone… better safe than sorry I thought.

It is difficult to get past their looks and behaviors to be honest.  First, their heads, while functionally understandable for birds reaching into a carcass, look wounded, raw and unfinished, much like those baboons with the flaming red butts.  Second, vultures cool off by urinating on their legs, a no doubt effective, though socially suspect process called urohydrosis.  Third, vultures use their vomit as an extremely effective weapon, no doubt giving any predator pause with that smell.  Sometimes they overeat and cannot get off the ground unless they vomit as well. 

You would think that with all the above limiting factors that vultures would have trouble finding a mate but surprisingly they don’t seem to have any trouble.  Their nest building is usually a weak attempt at best with most eggs lying on the bare ground.  Both parents incubate the eggs for an average of 31 days and they share the feeding duties afterward.  I once checked out an old silo and came upon a turkey vulture nest with both parents there.  Their cold stares had me easing out the door quickly and brought to mind Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart where the man was killed merely for “having the eye of a vulture.”   

As sanitary engineers they are some of the best, cleaning up the dead animals they find.  They can eat animals with diseases such as anthrax, botulism and cholera with their super strong stomach acid that kill these bacteria and toxins.  This benefits us because these toxins, once processed by the vultures, can no longer be spread to us.  

Vulture fan clubs are probably non-existent, the closest being tourists attending Tibetan Sky Burials,  but there is an International Vulture Awareness Day coming up this September the 7th for its 13th year.  Perhaps here we all can learn to appreciate one of the most vilified birds in the avian world.  Check out the festivities and activities here.

Take this next photo taken by my cousin Scott as a bonus.  This is a wild boar he shot and could not find till the following day.   I am guessing the boar was not completely dead when the vulture gained access from the rear and he clamped down.  Definitely not something you see every day.  On the fun side, a native American myth, (can’t remember the tribe), about a deer playing a trick on the vain vulture who was very proud of the feathers on his head.  The deer acted dead and when the vulture gained access like the picture shows, the deer clamped down and ran and jumped around, thereby making all the feathers on the vultures head rub off and giving him the present appearance.  

Know more to see more,

Ranger Billy

The Umstead Coalition

We are a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the natural integrity of William B. Umstead State Park and the Richland Creek Corridor.


The Umstead Coalition is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.