Many people who visit Presque Isle do not know that it is part of what is known as The Great American Flyway. And as such is in the middle of the annual migration of many birds and waterfowl. Some of these birds are only seen rarely on the park and are only passing through this time of year. In fact, on Tuesday April 19, a very rare bird, a Piping Plover, was seen on the park.
Early last week while driving along the road to North Pier, I stopped at one of the small parking lots next to Horseshoe Pond to take some photographs of the waterfowl swimming among the houseboats anchored there. A couple from Youngstown pulled up next to me and questioned me about the large bird circling above the area. They said it must be an eagle because they had heard that there are a few living on Presque Isle.
Looking up, I said I was sorry to disappoint them, but the bird they were looking at was a Turkey Vulture. I pointed out that in an old oak tree just a bit back from the pond, another vulture was watching from a large branch of an old Oak tree. As we watched, it took flight. The morning was still cold and there happened to be little wind.
The vultures have learned that the further North they expand their range, the less daylight and time they have for foraging. As birds that use their ability to soar on updrafts and thermals for lift, their successful movements and foraging abilities are dependent upon the wind, thermals and isolation. Like most birds of prey, they spend most of their them perched, and much of that time preening and watching the general area.
As we watched, we all noticed that the bird’s initial flight attempt was noisy, due to its wild flapping of his huge wings, and more than a bit slightly clumsy. We also saw that it took quite a bit of effort to gain flight. It took the vulture a long time to be able to successfully gain an air current and glide. Once this happened, it began to gain height. This is not uncommon with the Turkey Vulture in wintry weather. In warmer seasons, they use the updrafts produced by warm air rising from the earth’s surface to help them gain flight, plus soar and glide while hunting for food.
The Turkey Vulture is a large bird. It has a wing span of 63-72 inches and a length of 26 to 33 inches. They have very few vocalizations capabilities because they lack a syrinx. It can only utter hisses and grunts. It only hisses when it feels threated or when fighting other vultures over a carcass.
The Turkey Vulture received its common name from its resemblance of the adult’s bald red head and its dark plumage to that of the male wild turkey. The name “vulture” comes from the Latin word vulturus, meaning “tearer” and is a reference to its feeding habits.
The birds are generally covered in loose-fitting black and brown disorderly organized feathers that constantly make them look shaggy and totally unkempt. Their legs and feet are study and unfeatured and usually a dirty looking pink. Their face looks constantly flushed and wrinkled like an old man and much like the old man topped with a very sparse cap of adornment.
On Presque Isle, occasionally you can catch a view of a roost of Turkey Vultures who have gathered high up in a group of trees awaiting the return of the late morning sun after a long night’s sleep. I have seen this just twice. However, to me, they seem to look like a group of balding monks gathering for morning prayers. On Presque Isle, they seem to like the areas around Horseshoe Pond and parts of the lagoons as their evening roosting places.
The bird’s appearance is not the only reason people look upon them as ugly and useless animals. The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger and feeds almost exclusively on dead or putrefying flesh. It finds food using its keen eyes and highly defined sense of smell. One of my birder friends told me that they can smell a dead animal a mile away from where they are flying. Flying low they can detect the gases produced by the beginning of the process of decay in dead animals.
I have been asked several times about why these birds do not get sick from eating the decaying prey they feed on daily. Well, nature has decided to protect our flying garbage collectors from disease that the dead animals carry by giving them sophisticated immune system. Their digestive tract contains chemicals that destroy bacteria that would be lethal to other animals. In another somewhat disgusting trait, they let their excrement run down their legs to cleanse their feet of germs accumulated during feeding.
Turkey Vultures are awkward on the ground with a cumbersome, hopping type walk. They also require an immense effort to take flight from the ground, flapping their wings, trying to run and hop while pushing off the ground with their feet. The entire process looks clumsy and really is. The vultures ‘own feet look like they are getting in the way of their wings on its path to flight.
Two newer elements have made this flying garbage collector’s urban development possible. They are the automobile and the road and highway systems. They in a large sense have allowed the population of Turkey Vultures to grow each ear. The automobile is the top predator of animals in the country. From the vulture’s standpoint, automobiles are a perfect predator in that cars do not eat the remains of the kill. Yes, the Turkey Vulture is unpleasant in its looks and habits, but it does nicely clean the woodlands, fields and roads and highways of dead and decaying animals. Remember, all creatures of the earth have a reason to exist and we should always try to appreciate nature’s order.
The next blog will be the third and final one about the Great Lakes and explores the present and future problems and perils facing these wonderful bodies of fresh water.
See you at the park!!
This post was written by admin