Turkey vulture

A turkey vulture does some wing feather preening atop a dead tree in this photo taken on the first weekend in May. Part of nature's cleanup crew, they are commonly seen locally, but rarely cleaning up themselves.

Turkey vultures soaring and circling overhead, seeking the scent of carrion from high above, have become increasingly common sights locally and throughout Illinois in recent years.

They commonly roost overnight in the tops of tall, dead trees, on communications towers and other isolated heights, where they can be observed in the evenings and in the mornings, when they sometimes have to sit with wings extended to dry off the night's dew to be light enough for the day's flights.

However, you're not likely to get a close view of one preening its wing feathers without the assistance of Kankakee photographer Gary Soper or a long telephoto lens or binoculars of your own.

According to Illinois Natural History Survey records, turkey vultures didn't nest north of Marion in far southern Illinois 100 years ago and not north of Peoria 50 years ago.

Now, they breed throughout Illinois and have been increasing in population at an astonishing rate of 12 percent per year, according to INHS breeding bird surveys. This while many other bird species are either holding their own or are in decline, INHS avian research scientist Mike Ward noted for a 2013 Daily Journal article.

Prominent among nature's useful cleanup crews, these big, dark birds, with pinkish red heads and necks that make them resemble wild turkeys from a distance, have been increasing in numbers and moving north nationally for decades.

Some stay year-round as far north as Southern Illinois and adjacent states. Others migrate here every spring and breed here and across northern states — and into the southern plains of central Canada, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

They're year-round residents of our southern states and south to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.

Kankakee birder Jed Hertz has suggested that the increased population is the result of "more cars, more roads, more roadkill."

Ward agrees and adds that urban residents are less likely to shoot them, which is illegal. He also says increased thermal updrafts from urban parking lots and other heat reflectors may aid them in flight and food searching.

They live almost exclusively off of carrion (dead animal carcasses), helping clean up the planet in the process. They have keen eyesight and, unlike most birds, an acute sense of smell.

Their bald-appearing heads and necks actually are covered with light, downy feathers, which allows them to probe into the bodies they eat without trapping the gore in feathers.

They have an unusual defense mechanism. If approached too closely, they will hack up and hurl some of their lunch at the enemy. Some sources call it projectile vomiting. Some report it as off-loading in cases where they are too heavy from engorgement to take flight. In either case, the method often results in the enemy eating the vulture's former lunch — which may have been their intent.

In an article by Nancy Shepherdson in the Summer 2007 issue of the "Chicago Wilderness Magazine" (alas, no longer published), Bill Lynch, president of the Turkey Vulture Society, said he was "amazed ... that the birds themselves don't stink at all. Actually, they smell kind of sweet."

All the more amazing, since they also urinate on their own legs — which serves both as a cooling function on warm days and, since the urine contains strong acids, might kill bacteria left from their messy dining process.


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