Nature Alert: Turkey Vultures Are Cool

FOY’s and a Life-death Dissonance

As the dark depths of a rainy winter come to pass, Corvallisites can start to appreciate the “firsts of the year.” Common to birding lingo, I would argue that FOY applies to more than just the sightings of the winged. The first pink flowers drooping off red flowering currants, the first bits of greens poking through the thatch in meadows leftover from last year’s growth, the first buds bursting on still-colorful willow twigs – all are instances worthy of stopping, taking a deep breath, and launching the FOY title in gamboling, grateful glee.

Yet, there is something about the more traditional use of the phrase that holds weight — while plants may locally respond to changing weather conditions, cross-continental birds follow stricter annual patterns. The first appearances of migrators to the Pacific Northwest from down south is a sure sign that spring is arriving, and noticeably, one large raptor fits this bill: the turkey vulture, or Cathartes aura. 

On the West Coast, more than a million turkey vultures leave their winter roosts in countries as far away as Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador, to reach their breeding grounds in our greater backyard. Just about the size of eagles, turkey vultures can be differentiated at a distance by their v-shaped silhouette when soaring. Up close, they are dark brown with a featherless red head and pale bill. Turkey Vultures are “majestic but unsteady soarers” according to the fuddy-duddies at The Cornell Lab that run the All About Birds website. Vultures use environmental features to reach higher vantage points — they ride up thermals, or places where air and land temperatures differ and create updrafts. More often though, they fly low to sniff out carrion.

Because of their scavenging habits, turkey vultures have a bit of a bad rap culturally, often being associated with the downsides of death, and receiving the debatably degrading nickname of “buzzard.” Historically, misguided fears have led to trapping and killing of turkey vultures to stop the spread of disease. In reality, vultures actually serve the valuable service of reducing disease by removing decaying creatures from human-populated areas. In spite of the disdain they’ve faced, turkey vulture populations are considered at healthy levels globally.

The turkey vulture migration to the Pacific Northwest occurs just at the cusp of springtime, when so much new life is blossoming, sprouting, and otherwise opening into existence. For a bird so linked to death, the irony of this timing should not be lost. It is a gentle reminder, perhaps, that even as we embrace the lengthening days and greening landscape, death is just as fundamental to ecological cycles as is new life, and — given the right frame of mind and a pair of bino’s — can be seen as a beautiful, soaring thing.

To see turkey vultures around Corvallis, seek out open areas and places where thermals might occur. The Prairie Overlook at Finley Wildlife Refuge is a good bet, as is the south-facing, hilltop meadows of Chip Ross Park.

By Ari Blatt