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Turkey Vultures: Savvy Scavengers & Nature’s Cleanup Crew 



(Illustration: James Tilley)

The turkey vulture’s characteristic featherless red head (resembling a turkey’s) allows them to eat their carrion diet more hygienically. They can be distinguished from other large soaring birds by the V shape of their wings as they teeter and wobble in the wind. 

Unlike birds of prey, turkey vultures don’t rely on their sharp eyesight to find food. Instead, they have an extraordinary sense of smell — one of the best in the avian world. You’re most likely to spot turkey vultures along the side of a highway cleaning up roadkill, or soaring high in the sky around open fields, sniffing out their next meal. Their stomachs are super acidic, so they can digest just about anything, including certain poisons and viruses.

Living between southern Canada and South America, turkey vulture sightings are becoming increasingly common in Lunenburg County. These scavengers surf currents of warm air known as thermals. During the day, the sun heats the ground and causes columns of air to rise. Turkey vultures will often hitch a ride, soaring in an upward spiral around the thermal. 

A couple unflattering facts about turkey vultures: they will poop on their own feet in the hot summer months to cool off. They sometimes vomit on a perceived threat that gets too close, which is a significant defense considering their diet. 

Despite these foul habits, turkey vultures are a beautiful sight and are important to ecosystems, as they clean up carcasses that could otherwise lead to disease and contamination. Good job, turkey vultures!


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