Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Nature of Easton: A Turkey Vulture in the West Ward

By Christina Georgiou

A turkey vulture visited Easton's West Ward early Monday
morning, and spent a short time perched on top of a house
on the 1000 block of Ferry Street, both on its dormer roof,
and a little later, on it's chimney.
When one thinks of birds commonly seen in the City of Easton's neighborhoods, relatively  diminutive creatures, such as robins, house sparrows, starlings and the occasional cardinal probably come to mind. Crows live here too, and they're a bit bigger, but obviously they're not huge.

But sometimes the city, with its proximity to three good sources of water--the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, along with the Bushkill Creek--and nearby forested, rural acreage, is visited by much larger creatures, including bears and other wildlife not normally associated with urban areas.

Swooping below the trees along Ferry Street in Easton's West Ward just after sunrise Monday morning was one such member of the avian family, a turkey vulture, which quickly came to rest and spent some time warming its wings atop a house in the 1000 block.

From this angle, the turkey vulture almost looks like a giant
pigeon, doesn't it?
Turkey vultures (or Cathartes aura, if you want to be scientific about it), make use of thermal currents to take them high into the sky to search for food, which mostly consists of carrion--that is, the bodies of dead, rotting animals.

They're also migratory and use the warm air currents to reach heights from which they swoop through the sky at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, and travel quickly from place to place by hopping from one thermal to the next in this way.

Turkey vultures definitely aren't the most attractive bird, but
as part of nature's "clean up crew", they provide an
important function and are beneficial towards keeping
diseases from spreading.
 From a distance, up in the sky, turkey vultures are extremely graceful and agile.

But up close, they more resemble a huge turkey gone horribly wrong.

Songless, bald-headed, and the eaters of dead and other stinky things, vultures have a reputation for being dirty, ugly, foul creatures that are associated with bad omens. They're pretty huge too, with a body that's two- to two-and-a-half feet long and a six-foot wingspan.

While it's pretty hard to love a bird that's known for eating putrid meat, vomiting when startled, and urinating on its own legs to keep cool, turkey vultures do provide a valuable  "cleanup" service to the environment.

Due to their highly acidic, tough digestive systems, their waste is sterile and may have some anti-bacterial qualities as well, neutralizing the disease-carrying corpses they eat. For this reason, some cultures actually associate vultures with purification, not death.

As the sun began to warm the air early Monday morning,
the turkey vulture seen in the 1000 block of Ferry Street
ruffled its feathers, catching a light breeze, above.
Shortly thereafter, it took off from its chimney perch, below.
Turkey vultures, despite their appearance, are also extremely gentle birds who are nearly never known to attack living creatures, but only feed off of those who have already died, though they've also been known to eat rotten fruits and vegetables and dine on the occasional insect too.

The bird's sharp, pointed beak is used for tearing into the flesh of dead animals, and the bald head keeps it cleaner than if it had feathers there, with the animal sticking its head into the body cavities of larger deceased creatures.

Ironically, the turkey vulture has an unusually acute sense of smell for a bird, which along with keen eyesight, helps it to locate its next meal.

Normally the birds are found forested areas and agricultural settings, but turkey vultures are adaptable, so they're also seen in areas with lots of roadways, where they feast on roadkill. They're also attracted to landfill areas--the one owned by Chrin just a few miles away may have been the source of attraction for the bird seen on Monday. It may have just been taking a break or decided to take in some city sights before moving on.

While turkey vultures are not prolific breeders--mating pairs produce an average of two offspring per year, nesting on the ground in some protected area like a hollow log--they are fairly long-lived. In the wild, they reach 10 to 20 years of age.

This is one of about half a dozen turkey vultures that were seen early Monday
afternoon, gliding in lazy circles over Easton's Downtown. They appeared
to be heading in a northerly direction, so it seems likely the group was
just passing through.
 They also like the company of their own kind. The one seen on a rooftop and chimney of a house Monday was alone at the time, but later in the day, in the early afternoon when the temperature had risen considerably, about half a dozen turkey vultures were seen swooping and gliding in large, lazy circles high over Downtown Easton headed in a northerly direction.

We have no idea if the bird seen early Monday morning was among them, but it seems likely. Either way, they really are a lot more attractive from a distance, and since the turkey vulture observed in the West Ward hasn't been sighted since, it was probably just passing through.

To learn more about turkey vultures, check out these links:

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