Bird of the Day: Turkey Vultures at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
One of my favorite television shows was "Dirty Jobs", in which Mike Rowe took a stab at doing the kinds of crummy jobs that make life liveable for the rest of us: the sewer work, the cleaning jobs, all the stuff that few of us would ever want to do, but someone has to do it, or else. Sometimes we hold some of these unfortunate folks in low esteem, but I try not to. They are real heroes in my book.
That's the way things sometimes work in the bird world as well. Things die and they get stinky and kind of put a damper on the "circle of life" thing, except that there are animals who come along to process and consume the carcasses. They are the scavengers. There are several birds that fill this role, but two are supreme at it: the California Condor and the rarely heralded Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). As many people realize, the Condor was at the brink of extinction, and still number in the low hundreds, so it is the Turkey Vulture that most often takes on the role of scavenger in the American west.
We were on a long road trip over the Thanksgiving weekend and made a stop at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge for a second time (we came through briefly on Thursday). I wasn't expecting to see Vultures but couldn't help but notice that dozens of them were roosting in the Eucalyptus trees by the visitor center, so we wandered down for a closer look. They were apparently settling in for the evening.
They can hardly be called beautiful birds, but as a function of efficiency, they are nicely adapted. Given that they spend a lot of time with their heads in dead carcasses, the bald skin makes a lot of sense. Their huge wings allow them to soar for hours on warm thermals, and their large nostrils can detect the smell of rotting flesh from great distances.
The Turkey Vultures were originally more of a southern species but have been expanding their range northward, quite possibly in concert with global warming. They are found today in all the lower forty-eight states and parts of Canada as well. They are probably increasing their numbers, but are threatened by pesticides and lead shot used by hunters.
I've always associated the vultures with the grossness of death and dying, but as I watched them yesterday, they seemed rather fastidious in their grooming. Perhaps it was in the manner of the funeral director, who is always well-dressed...someone who fills an important role, even though we don't like thinking about it or dwelling on what they do.