Cochise County Birds: The Turkey Vulture


No desert wildlife photography site should be without an entry for the turkey vulture, Cathartes Aura, and Cochise County is no exception.

You can find this great carrion eater, Mama Nature’s most awesome janitor, pretty much anywhere.  I’ve watched these buzzards circling on high above Glendive, Montana, and staring fixedly at our house in Custer, South Dakota, after an early snowstorm.  But here in Arizona, they’re something extra special.

The Sonoran desert, see.  Ancient Apaches stalking early white men as the invaders stumble along, sucking on pebbles, trying to find water before it’s too late…

Hey, that’s the movie image.  In truth, a number of people do still die in the Arizona desert every year.  Most of them are illegal border crossers, abandoned by their coyotes, their paid guides, for one reason or another.  Sometimes cell phones save them, bring Cochise County deputies or Border Patrol agents to their rescue.  But even in this day of satellite technology, not every square foot out there has a signal.

Every square foot of the territory is scanned by the turkey vultures, though.  They’ve got keen eyes, the ability to smell death gases you or I couldn’t even detect yet, and an appetite for rotting carcasses.

We should be glad they do.  We have a saying out here:

The desert cleans itself.

It does indeed…with a bit of help from our rather interesting feathered friend.

Pam and I’d not seen one up close and personal, however…until last May.  The big bird was perched on a fence post beside the dirt road runing between our place and the highway.

It didn’t seem much worried about us.  Photographic gold.

Turkey vulture on fence post.

Oddly enough, this was the first time either my wife or I had seen a turkey vulture anywhere but flying on high–with the single exception of September 15, 1995, in Custer, South Dakota.  That day, my soon-to-be-ex and I had the dubious pleasure of watching a pair of the big birds watch us from their roost in a pine tree situated less than 30 yards from the front door of our house.

The pleasure was “dubious” because I knew those two were there to serve as omens.  My two stepsons were at that time functioning as ticking time bombs in the local middle school.  We needed to get those boys outa Dodge before the bomb went off–not a physical bomb, but a reputation-ruining bomb.

Seems they’d been involved in some shenanigans with other local boys three years earlier, the first year they’d arrived in Custer.  Not to say just what, but it involved an ultra-nasty game of Truth or Dare…and those buzzards were eyeballing us with a simple, direct message:

Move out of state!  NOW!

It took me another 2 1/2 months to get gone, but we did it.  Thanks, turkey vultures!

Looking away.

Quite a few observers have marveled at the turkey vulture.  Some of its kin–the black vulture, for instance–will hunt as well as scavenge, but not our brown-feathered friend.  It’s dead stuff and dead stuff only for this ghoulish gourmet.  That cruel  beak can rip and tear like nobody’s business, and wait till you see how they use those big feet!

But more than anything, how on Earth can such an ugly bird on the ground be such a stunningly beautiful bird in the air?

Turkey vulture in the air, carrying a bit of carrion to consume later, at its leisure.

It’s the big fish that always gets away, and it’s the great on-the-wing shot that always blurs too much to be published.  Let me tell you about….nah.  I’ll quit complaining.  What we have managed to catch isn’t all that bad.

One day in mid-June, I happened to drive by a turkey vulture chowing down out there in the bunch grass.  The car spooked it just a bit.  It took off with the rest of its meal clutched in one big birdy foot, landing another fifty yards farther on.

At first, you couldn’t see much but old dead grass; most of the bird was hidden from view.

The turkey vulture (and the last of its meal) are mostly hidden in the grass.

On my second try, I managed to find an open camera angle–and this time the diner stayed put.  In fact, it stood over the remnants of hide and fur from whatever little mammal had died recently, more or less daring me or anything else to mess with its meal.

At one point, it seemed to believe standing was not aggressive enough…so it crouched over the food in an obviously defensive posture, ready to fight if need be.

The vulture stands over the remnants of its meal.

Back off, buster! My roadkill!

Don’t believe I’d care to tackle a bird that big…and that ready to defend a piece of roadkill.

Yummy precious dead meat!

The ripping and tearing and swallowing were all impressive enough, but the dexterity in the bird’s feet was absolutely amazing.  This one stands on its left foot and handles its chow with its right.  “Handles” is the right word, too; that foot is just as dextrous as the hand of any human craftsman.

Opposable toes.

That birdfoot is as dextrous as any human hand.

After the snack is every bit down the hatch, the turkey vulture takes off again, heading for the wild blue yonder to see what other tasty tidbit might be visible from on high.

Those wings are amazing.  Huge and elegant in flight, they fold up next to the body like a pair of accordions when it comes time for ground work.

Now that I’ve become more aware of the turkey vulture’s ever-presence in the Cochise County skies, it’s hard not to notice them roaming the atmosphere, soaring, circling, ever studying the larder that is the Earth below them.  Sometimes half a dozen or more will be clearly visible to the naked eye, though seldom close enough together to get more than one into a single picture.

There are other big birds up there.  Ravens, for example, and great red tailed hawks.  But at any given moment, on average, there are more turkey vultures.  Those seen at close range, either in the air or on the ground, seem strong and healthy and well fed.

There is, apparently, much dead stuff to eat in this area.

UPDATE:  October 1, 2012

This morning, I terminated a three-foot Mojave green rattlesnake that made the mistake of deciding to hunt right up next to the house.  We know the desert cleans itself, so the snake carcass was hauled out to one of the coyote travel lanes that runs through our property some 150 yards or so from the residence.

If the buzzards didn’t get it before dark, the coyotes would get it before daylight.

We were in town for much of the day, returning home around 4:00 p.m…at which point, a turkey vulture had just arrived and settled in for a late lunch.

Camera time!

The big scavenger flew off for a while when I got too close (about 80 yards) but returned a bit later.  Seemed to have quit worrying about me.

On the way in, it provided one of the best on-the-wing pictures ever, then followed up on the ground by picking up what was left of the rattlesnake and chowing down.  When it was done, nothing was left behind but about 2/3 of the spine, some skin scraps, and the rattles–though those were busted in two.

Since that last “bones” shot is kind of graphic, we’ll leave a couple of wing pics at the end of the page to balance things out.

On the wing, coming in to enjoy the second half of an interrupted meal of rattlesnake meat.

Moving the half-eaten snake carcass to a “better” spot. (Why a few feet to the west made for finer dining, who knows?)

The remains of the Mojave green rattlesnake after the vulture finished eating: About 2/3 of the spine, some skin scraps, and the (broken) rattles.

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