By Dan Defeo
One of the more misunderstood birds on Long Island is the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). This avian “underdog” is widely misunderstood, typically owing its negative connotation that typically follows being a large and ominous looking animal. However, despite the branding that this animal has worn over its lifetime, that belief couldn’t be further than the truth.
The turkey vulture is a scavenger. Unlike other birds of prey that are equipped with sharp talons to hunt their next meal, the turkey vulture lacks these and instead utilizes another specialized characteristic- their highly developed sense of smell. Instead of searching for food along the ground, the turkey vulture takes flight in search of their meal. By spreading their six-foot wingspan, vultures are capable of utilizing heat thermals and ride rising columns of hot air to reach significant heights. Gliding through the sky and decorated with a silver underside and finger-like tips, the turkey vulture will rarely flap its wings. The next meal for the turkey vulture can be located as far as two miles away as it hones in on a concentration of ethyl mercaptan- the chemical scent that is released from a decomposing organism. Interestingly enough, certain oil companies specifically add this to oil pipelines to determine if there are any leaks by keeping an eye out for a congregation of vultures in the sky.
Up close, turkey vultures exhibit distinct physical characteristics unlike most other birds on Long Island. Aside from their large imposing size, their bald and featherless bright red head is one of their key identifiers – and this characteristic is responsible for their namesake. Upon closer inspection, one can see almost through their nasal passage as a septum is not present but instead is shielded on the front with nostrils on the side. Both of these facial features actually serve a great purpose. As a scavenger, they must stick their head inside of cavities of their meals. By virtue of their great features, the lack of feathers prevents bacteria from clinging to its head, and the specialized nasal passage prevent any unwanted bits from getting inside. Eating decaying matter may seem like a demanding task, but the pH level in the stomach of a turkey vulture is exponentially higher than its avian counterparts. The acid is so strong that harmful organisms such as botulism, rabies, and even anthrax cannot survive within.
Nature demands a “sanitation engineer”, and by no means is it a clean job. Turkey vultures spend time cleaning themselves in ways you may not suspect. Up in trees, even along building rooftops, you might spot a venue of vultures spreading their wings and sunbathing, a way of baking bacteria off of them. While this may appear terrifying to see such a large animal in this position, it can act as a reminder that this misunderstood animal is cleaning up after a hard day of work playing its role in our ecosystem.