Turkey vultures are nature's cleanup crew

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WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — In the great circle of life, and the eat-or-be-eaten story of nature's food web, there is one species in Delaware that shows up at THE END.

They are big, they are intimidating and, some suggest, they are harbingers of death dressed in feathers.

But turkey vultures are nature's cleanup crew, sniffing out dead things on the fly and then forming a tag team, flash mob-type assembly that often includes Delaware's other vulture species: the black vulture and sometimes even the smaller crow or raven. In hours or days, these birds can pick a deer carcass clean and leave nothing but a skeleton along the side of the road. So much for stinky, rotting, decaying flesh.

These two species, along with the highly endangered, California condor, are nature's eater of carrion - dead stuff. Eagles will nibble on a roadkill bunny, as will a jay, a crow, a raven or even an owl. But savaging and eating roadkill is the life work of the turkey and black vulture.

Scary, maybe. Important, yes, says Anthony Gonzon, who is updating Delaware's Breeding Bird Atlas.

"They are pretty neat," he said. "These guys are out there. They are cleaning up everything. . . . That's part of their function in the ecosystem."

Fish kill, the turkey vulture will be there. Dead deer, that's your bird.

Ornithologist Kevin McGowan, at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said that 10 years ago, black vultures were pretty unusual in upstate New York, but these days they are much more common. And turkey vultures even move into Canada during the summer.

"We don't know why," he said.

But there are a couple of theories. First off, people used to routinely kill birds like crows, ravens and vultures just for the sport of it, he said. The birds were eventually protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

McGowan said fewer people shoot them, and deer populations have exploded all along the Atlantic coast.

"There's just more roadkill," he said.

Bird populations often move or expand in response to food supplies, and it's nothing for a turkey vulture to travel 30 to 50 miles in search of food, McGowan said.

Meanwhile, turkey vultures have lots of adaptations, like their distinctive, featherless head - the better to dig into that dead stuff - and the fright response of vomiting on potential predators - think Linda Blair in "The Exorcist." And to keep their feet neat, tidy and free of bacteria, they urinate on them with their acid-rich waste.

Now, if you'd still like to be scared, consider this: Turkey vultures don't have nests. Instead pairs lay one to two eggs in tree cavities or on the floor of little-used buildings.

Gonzon said that if you don't know turkey vultures are nesting in an old building, it can be really startling. Turkey vultures don't call like other birds. Instead, they hiss, he said.

"If you don't know they are there," he said, " it's enough to make the hair on your neck stand up."

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