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COLUMNISTS

Curious looking turkey vulture worthy of respect

Justin Isherwood
In a fair world the turkey vulture would appear on coins and government offices as regularly as the bald eagle. The image problem is that the turkey vulture has a head made for Halloween.

In a fair world the turkey vulture would appear on coins and government offices as regularly as the bald eagle. Perhaps as a reminder that government’s job is to clean-up the mess and straighten the furniture, more vulture-like than what eagles do.

The image problem is that the turkey vulture has a head made for Halloween, featherless, wrinkled, and worse, an outrageous shade of pink going on red that would nicely grace any horror flick’s resident ghoul.

That said, the turkey vulture is among nature’s most gifted fliers. It can soar with an ease few birds can match, if maybe the frigate bird and albatross. Watching these four pound birds turning circles on their six foot wing spans over the farm fields is more than a charm, it seems the munificence of the divine.

Ornithologists suspect the vulture’s ever-present wing twitch as a kind of earnest reading of the air currents, allowing the vulture to soar for hours in what looks like effortless flight, seen at 20,000 feet by commercial pilots.

The turkey vulture is among nature’s most gifted fliers. It can soar with an ease few birds can match.

Turkey vultures began invading Wisconsin and lower Canada in the 1960s, expanding their range out of the southern and middle states. Arriving in spring just as the landscape opens up from another northern winter, they are a sign of the season as reliable as the return of the swallows.

Their migrating pattern is a classic among snow-birds, for all appearances leisurely, roosting at night and only taking flight as morning thermals develop, what their long elegant wings exploit. Why this leisurely approach isn’t on stamps, coins and post offices needs reconsideration given the shrill noise coming from current American politics. Something a little more calm and leisurely might be nice.

The current theory why the turkey vulture expanded its range involves the white-tail deer and its like expansion on the landscape, the Virginian cervidae fed on irrigated corn, soybeans and high protein alfalfa instead of bark and twigs. Not the venison I remember coming to the table, what out of hunter honor we felt obligated to eat. What my taste assigned a taste as close to tarpaper. How I knew what tarpaper tasted like I don’t know.

The irony is the turkey vulture has taste buds too, very discriminating taste buds. The growing presence of this vulture in the northern tier closely follows that white-tail, in turn allied to the increase of road miles traveled by the average family equipped with a two-car garage. A phenomenon defined by road kills, the turkey vulture being a carrion bird combines nicely with the happy opportunity of the road-kill deer.

That the turkey vulture is not on stamps and coins is likely due to the carrion thing if the ugly head doesn’t help. More subtly the turkey vulture isn’t exactly a carrion bird, preferring a fresh kill to left-overs from last week. Raccoons and skunks may tolerate last week, turkey vultures don’t.

Instead the very connoisseurs of carrion requiring the same degree of freshness as did the famed diet of a birder named Fran Hamerstrom. Who I once asked how she knew a free roadside meal was safe to eat. “Smell” she curtly replied, “it’s that simple.”

Smell is the turkey vulture’s principle virtue, as it ought apply to government as well. In the case of carrion, when it stinks it’s quality has dropped below the vulture and Hamerstrom threshold. Turkey vultures from a distance of a mile smell carrion dead less than 12 hours. To wonder if any wine tasting gourmand can match this.

The turkey vulture’s scientific Latin name is Cathartes aura, translated as "cleansing breeze", a touch weird but maybe dead-on. And as it happens, equally worthy of governance.

Justin Isherwood

Justin Isherwood of Plover is a fifth-generation farmer and the author of Book of Plough,Christmas Stones & The Story Chair, and Farm Kid: Tales of Growing Up in Rural America.