Levin: The turkey vulture

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(HOST) Vermont has it’s share of hawks – and now eagles – but commentator Ted Levin has been watching the return of another large, soaring bird to our summer skies.

(LEVIN) For much of the summer, I’ve watched a turkey vulture float over our valley, gently rocking back and forth in the sky like a dark leaf adrift. I watched it dip over Gillette Swamp, then rise above the valley’s western rim and vanish into a heavy gray cloud. I assumed that the bird was searching for some decaying flesh held together by hide… a deer… a skunk… perhaps something small like a mouse that could be swallowed whole.
Ranging from southern Canada to Patagonia, turkey vultures are the most widely distributed vulture in the world. They dot the skies of Cuba, and nest on the roofs of Lima, Peru where they feed on third-world carrion.

Turkey vultures out-competed or out-lived other Ice Age scavengers like teratorns or condors, whose life-styles eroded as Hemispheric monsters – mammoths, ground sloths, glyptodonts – died off. In fact, turkey vultures are small-mammal specialists. They detect remains by smell, a trait unique among North American birds, and then eat quickly before the smaller, more aggressive (and nearly as wide-spread) black vulture can steal it away.
This past April, while searching for emerging rattlesnakes in the Bull Run Mountains of northwestern Virginia, my friend Annie was startled by a turkey vulture. The bird leapt out of a jumble of boulders, ascended through an opening in the woodland canopy, circled a few times, and then returned to roost halfway up a large oak tree nearby. Silently, and with good reason the bird followed our every move. In the cave from which it had emerged were a pair of cream-colored eggs, each decorated with random spots and squiggles as if Jackson Pollack himself had stood above them with a dripping paintbrush.   
This was only the second turkey vulture nest I’ve ever seen.

The first was in 1980 on a ledge above the Connecticut River in West Lebanon, the very first nesting record in Northern New England. A lot has changed though, in the last twenty-nine years.
Vermont’s first Breeding Bird Atlas, published in 1985, documented the state’s first nest in 1983 in Franklin County. The second Atlas, just completed last year, found turkey vultures everywhere, drifting on thermals above highways, ledges, and rivers, above farms, golf courses, and villages. In fact, the Atlas recorded a statewide increase of 158 percent over the past twenty-five years and possible breeding in two hundred sixty-seven sites. 
Which brings me back to that turkey vulture floating above Gillette Swamp. Earlier this month, my boys, Jordan and William, were scaling the western rim of our valley, attracted to an otherworldly hiss and the smell of rotten meat that wafted from beneath an overhung boulder. As the boys got closer, the hiss got louder, the stench stronger, and there inside a rocky alcove stood a juvenile turkey vulture. It was nearly full-grown, but still sporting a white ruff of down around its dark shoulders.

Almost two feet high, it was the quintessential adolescent, upset, awkward, and protesting bitterly – but ready to soar.

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