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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: A Good Reason to Move | 05-02-2013
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, May 2, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugI have a personal history with turkey vultures, and it is worth taking a few moments to explain.

I used to live in Valencia, in the big house with the pool. But being a docent in Placerita, I got a tip that if I were to look carefully in a certain quiet neighborhood in Newhall, I would be able to observe plenty of turkey vultures.

I took my dog for a walk there, saw the vultures gliding by, and noticed that a house was for sale. It was empty and being renovated, so I entered the backyard. It was big, more like a jungle, with vegetation that had not been tamed for years.

When I reached the bottom of the slope, I was transfixed. Above me stood an enormous eucalyptus tree with a large number of turkey vultures perched in it. It was the end of the afternoon, and they were coming to roost.

Photos by Jessica Nikolai / Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates

Photos by Jessica Nikolai / Placerita Canyon Nature Center Associates

Maybe we could buy this house and own the roost? In the back of my mind, I knew you never “own” anything in nature; you are granted the joy of being able to share those moments for the time nature allows – but it was worth a try.

My family was informed of my dream. They thought I would change my mind, and they put lots of restrictions on the decision. But eventually everything fell into place, and a few months later, to their great surprise, we moved into my dream house with the turkey vulture roost in the backyard.

I want to assure you that I am not nuts. The big house in Valencia was feeling too big with my children going to college, and I really had fallen in love with the roost and the wild backyard.

I have never regretted it. I have spent many wonderful moments observing these big and gentle birds.

Turkey vultures have a bad reputation because they eat carrion. But they play an important role in the ecosystem by disposing of road kill and dead animals that can spread disease.

How do they do that? They are the only bird with an acute sense of smell and are able to detect rotten meat from long distances.

They do not hunt by sight, and many tests have been performed to prove this. They pick up the scent of ethyl mercaptan and find the dead body. They do not kill; they are not well equipped like other birds of prey are. Their feet are flat and cannot grasp; their talons are blunt; their beak is weak – but since their diet is softer rotten flesh, that is not a handicap.

evelyne050213dThe turkey vulture is awkward on the ground. It does not walk easily and needs open space to be able to take flight, flapping its wings and pushing off of the ground with its feet.

In flight they are majestic. They soar using the thermals, and they do not flap their wings. They keep their wings in a “V” shape and tip from side to side. They use the longer feathers on the tips of the wings to change direction.

What is a roost? Turkey vultures are gregarious, and they spend the night together in a large tree or other structure. They come about one hour before sunset and leave in the morning.

I do not know if any research has been done on the topic, but I have seen them on two occasions helping and guarding a bird that was in distress on the ground until the bird was safe enough to fly onto a roof or another higher perch some time later.

There is a slight amount of interaction at the roost, standing next to each other. In the morning, they can be seen spreading their wings to dry and warm them so they are light enough to soar. This also helps warm their body to bake off bacteria.

Turkey vultures have an interesting adaptation for warm climates: They defecate on their legs to cool themselves off. That is called urohidrosis.

It is a gentle, large bird with a wingspan of 63 to 72 inches, and they do not have many predators except when they are juveniles, when they can be attacked by eagles and great horned owls. Their primary form of defense is to vomit semi-digested meat, and the smell is foul. That is something even the babies can do if they are attacked.

They sometimes vomit pellets made of hair and feathers after a heavy and quick meal.

evelyne050213eThese birds are really unusual – they have a sense of smell, but they do not have a voice. They lack a syrinx, so all they can do is hiss when they feel threatened, and grunt, which is a more general way to communicate.

The juvenile birds have dark grey skin on the head with short, downy feathers. When they mature, the head turns red and is completely bald. Again, that is a good adaptation if you eat rotten flesh: It is much better if you do not have feathers that are there collecting debris from your meal.

They migrate toward South America. In my backyard, they would gather at the end of September. I counted between 35 and 40 birds each year, and they typically returned in January.

The breeding season varies according to location. They do not make a nest; rather, they lay two eggs on the ground under dense undergrowth or in a log. The eggs hatch after 38 to 41 days of incubation. The young are brooded 70 to 80 days.

Both parents take care of the young by regurgitating food for them. The young fledge at about 9 to 10 weeks, but the family stays together until the fall.

End of my story: Two years ago, a huge branch fell from the large eucalyptus in my back yard. The turkey vultures were shaken up; their environment had changed too much. They stayed for the rest of the year but did not come back after migration. This roost had been active for more than 50 years. I was sad that they left my back yard, but I heard they found a new place. I was told they can be seen on Wiley Canyon Road.

Dear readers, I am going to take a break and will be back with you in June. Thank you for your interest, and stay tuned for more natural-interest stories then. Take care.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

evelyne050213c evelyne050213b

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