Turkey vultures prefer fine cuisine

Lawrence Woodall's column takes a look at carrion birds.

Depending on your mindset, birds can play an important role in locating or avoiding wildlife.

Usually when you hear a group of birds squawking at one another during berry season, you’ll usually find those birds fighting over the berry seeds around the paws of a bear.  Stellar Jays will always beak off when their personal space is trespassed upon, thus informing you of another human or other species near your vicinity; same with Canadian Geese.

It works both ways, especially when you’ve sat in a blind for several hours waiting to capture wildlife on film only to have a Stellar trespass on your personal space, shrieking its annoying alarm. It’s at that moment you wonder what BBQ Stellar tastes like, because your photo shoot has just gone down the drain.

And then there’s the terror of the wilderness, the humming bird, that always has the uncanny ability to sneak up on you when you attempting to silently find the best natural blind for a photo. In my experience it has usually been a grizzly shoot. With all your senses on edge, the terror buzzes by you sending your heart into cardiac arrest.

Then there’s the congregation of carrion eaters; eagles, crows, ravens and turkey vultures. If you see a large group especially in grizzly country it’s a good bet there’s a large carcass with a large predator feeding at the all you can eat buffet.

A perfect example of this is the book, The Bears Embrace written by Patricia Van Tighen which illustrates the mauling of Patricia and her husband in 1983 by a grizzly. They had missed the carrion birds that signified a carcass site which was a grizzly feed site running along the trail they were hiking.

It was a hike along the beach front that highlighted the use of birds as indicators. It was a question of travelling north or south, when a venue of turkey vultures approximately one km south that decided my direction.

I wasn’t disappointed as it was a feed site offering up an 800lb bull sea lion. Unlike their old world cousins which have no sense of smell, North America’s Turkey vultures have a sharp sense of smell combined with keen eyesight.

According to experts, turkey vultures so prefer herbivores over carnivores due to tastier flesh, that they’ll bypass carcasses of cats, dogs and coyotes.

It is also said that they will turn their nose up at carcasses in advanced stage of putrefaction, that they prefer fresh meat but must wait a few days for the hide to soften for their weak beaks to penetrate.

Well I’m no expert on the degree of putrefaction, but once downwind it would curl your toes and roll your eyes.In comparison, 7 Mile Pit smells like a bed of roses. The skull was picked clean and they had only begun penetrating the back end of the carcass.

Upon approaching, the birds took to flight, though one bird remained but didn’t eat while I was in the vicinity. Turkey vultures will also play dead if they feel threatened.

Getting a good look at its streaked legs from defecating on its own feet to cool off and using the acids in their waste to kill the bacteria on their feet that they get from walking on dead carcasses is quite fascinating.

Returning the following morning just before first light from downwind, burrowing in a natural blind to suffer several hours the onslaught of putrefied flesh, I finally succumbed to the stench.

Turning to leave the blind, there was a venue of turkey vultures observing me observing the carcass.

I can only assume the fussy eaters don’t like being watched when they eat.

Lawrence Woodall is a longtime naturalist who has spent much of his life in the outdoors.