Living Sanibel: The Turkey Vulture
The turkey vulture is one of the easiest birds to spot in Florida. All you really have to do is look up. The only time you will not see it soaring above the mainland is in the early morning before the rising thermals form. It is one of the most ubiquitous birds in the sky, and in agricultural areas such as Glades and Hendry counties it is not uncommon to see dozens of these large birds across the horizon.
A carrion feeder, the turkey vulture thrives on roadkill, red tide incidents (feeding on washed-up fish carcasses), and other dead animals. When there is a shortage of carrion, it feeds on garbage, vegetables, and even pumpkins, so it is actually an omnivore. Even though the vulture-with its unsavory eating habits, bald head, and black body-is considered unattractive by most birders, it plays an important role in the ecosystem. It quickly removes dead chicks from rookeries and feeds on stillborn livestock and other large carcasses such as deer and bear. This niche behavior greatly reduces the risk of diseases spreading from the decaying flesh. The vulture makes up the biological cleaning crew of the wilderness.
Whereas the black vulture feeds by sight, the turkey vulture feeds by both sight and smell. It has the most sophisticated olfactory sense of any bird in the world, able to spot and smell carrion from heights of up to 200 feet.
The turkey vulture tends to be less social than its close cousin, the black vulture. Although the turkey vulture is easily and frequently spotted soaring overhead, almost no one ever sees its nests. This is in large part because it nests either on the ground in dense cover such as Brazilian pepper or white mangrove thickets, where it builds a minimal nest of raked stones, dried leaves, and wood chips, or in hollowed-out tree stumps with narrow entrances.
It has several other unique behaviors. One of the weirdest of these is its propensity to defecate on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water to cool itself down. When alarmed, the turkey vulture has been known to throw up on its attackers.
Because of its tendency to feed on roadkill, the turkey vulture is often hit by automobiles. It is also sometimes killed by predators such as panthers in an effort to keep the vulture off of fresh kills. Because it is a ground nester, its eggs and chicks are subject to predation by mammals and snakes.