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Vultures aren’t cute, but they are vital

The turkey vulture is not a bird most people seek out and it is not a common backyard visitor, but I bet most of you have seen this large dark bird soaring in the New Mexico skies.

This vulture averages about 26 inches, with a wing span of 67 inches. Turkey vultures appear black from a distance but are really dark brown. They are bigger

Turkey vulture (Photo courtesy of Mary Schmauss)

than most raptors, with a long tail, featherless, pinkish head and pale bill. The undersides of the wings are paler; giving a two-toned appearance while they are in flight. When not flying, vultures can be seen roosting, often with their wings spread, on fence posts, telephone poles or on the tops of dead trees.

Turkey vultures are a summer resident in most of North America, including New Mexico. They do not build nests, like most other birds. Instead, they scrape away dirt and leaf matter from hollow logs, rock crevices and ledges to prepare the site for nesting. After nesting, in late summer, turkey vultures living in the Western states begin a long migration south. Western vultures migrate in large numbers (over 1 million) as far as Central and South America to spend the winter. In the eastern U.S., the vultures migrate a much shorter distance, often traveling no farther than the Southeastern states. I first encountered large numbers of turkey vultures when birding near Carlsbad.

While driving along a two-lane road, I noticed turkey vultures roosting on every fence post. This went on for miles. An amazing sight was at daybreak, when all the vultures awakened and flew to the sky at the same time.

Turkey vultures are carrion eaters, meaning they prefer to feed on dead animals. They are most commonly seen soaring low in the sky, in farmlands, deserts, landfills and roadsides where food like roadkill is more abundant. They have a naked or featherless head, so they do not soil any feathers when feeding. They have a sharp, pointed bill designed for tearing skin and a keen sense of smell that helps them locate carcasses. I often refer to these birds as New Mexico’s vacuum cleaner.

The turkey vulture may not win a beauty or popularity contest, but it does have a vital role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. Be sure to watch for these impressive birds, especially when driving throughout our state.

Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque. A lifelong birder and author of For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to your Backyard.