Ecofeminism, Subsistence Living & Nature Awareness

October 12, 2009

Vultures, Magnificent Birds with an Unsavory Job

Filed under: Paula Mariedaughter,Wildlife — Paula Mariedaughter @ 6:58 am

Igor, the vulture with a wingspread five feet wide

Vultures are majestic birds with an important part to play in the health of our ecosystem. Vultures take their job as scavengers seriously and want our respect enough to wear tuxedos to collect the garbage! Seriously, isn’t this a beautiful bird? If you saw it, and I told you it was a relative of the huge California condor and we called it an Arkansas condor you might be more inclined to admire the common turkey vulture. The condors have a 10′ wingspan! Our local relative has the same red head with a 5 1/2′ wingspan. Both are impressive as they cruise the skies soaring along the currents above the trees.


Igor, catching his balance

When this turkey vulture spread his huge wings preparing to lift off, I felt the breeze. The powerful wings pushed a rush of cool air toward us. This huge bird was tethered to the gloved hand of Lynn Sciumbato of Morning Star Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Lynn brought four common raptors to the Shiloh Museum for a program sponsored by the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society on Saturday, October 11, 2009. I was sitting front and center with my new digital camera and asked beforehand if it would be permissible to take pictures. Five feet in front of me were birds I knew from living in the mountains of northwest Arkansas for the last twenty-three years, but I had never been within feet of touching them.

Lynn brought two owls; the smaller was an Eastern Screech Owl (about 8” tall with pointy ear tufts and a wingspan of 20, weighing a mere 6 ounces), and the larger was a Barred Owl (about 21” tall with pronounced bars of dark gray and a wingspan of 42”, weighing 1.6 pounds with no visable ear tufts). These owls are more common in woodland settings and tend to be heard rather than seen. The third of the true raptors was a Red Tailed Hawk, also a big bird and the most rambunctious bird as it waited for its turn to view the crowd. Each bird traveled to the event in a large plastic dog kennel with towels draped over each kennel to minimize stimulation. Red Tailed Hawks (about 19” tall, with the distinctive long rusty-colored tail feathers and a wingspan of 49”, weighing 2 ½ pounds) are often seen soaring high above open spaces or perched near roads and highways.


Eight inch high eastern screech owl with an injured left eye. Note the heavy leather worn to protect flesh from the razor sharp talons

When Lynn first introduced us to the diminutive screech owl I was impressed by the respectful manner she handled the owl and by how comfortable the owl seemed perched on her gloved hand even surrounded by strangers. Lynn is a former teacher and is licensed to rehabilitate wild animals at the sanctuary located in Gravette, AR. Her calm, gentle manner and warm sense of humor pervaded the room. Each of the birds seemed to trust her. Someone asked if she was not nervous having the bird’s sharp beak so close to her face. Lynn explained that in her mind the beak was comparable to a knife and fork used for eating food. With emphasis she explained that all the raptors have razor-sharp feet for seizing and killing prey. When she is attempting a rescue of an injured raptor, she must protect herself from an attack of those deadly claws. According to my dictionary, raptor comes form the Latin word meaning to plunder or snatch. Their name describes their actions for survival–the raptors all grasp their prey with their weapons know as talons.

Because of DNA evidence, vultures have recently been moved from the raptor grouping and are now classified with storks. The weak claws of vultures make them distinct from the raptors. Without the predatory claws, vultures are not capable of ripping open a tough hide on dead animals–they depend on other predators (many with cars) to open such a carcass. Vultures even have a vestige of webbing between their toes that makes their feet similar to storks.

We learned that frogs and lizards are common prey for this diminutive owl with the tufted ears. At Cedar Hill we often hear the distinctive high-pitched whinny call of the screech owl. The haunting sound is common, but an actual sighting is difficult because they roam the woods at night. Note that the feathers on this owl look like tree bark–camouflage is a protection against other bigger predators like the barred owl Lyn brought out next.


Almost two feet tall, with bars of color on the tail--one big owl!

Barred owls may look like a cuddly stuffed animal, but remember those razor sharp talons! Lynn noted that the barred owl may look big and heavy, but said it was a illusion caused by the fluffy feathers. She demonstrated by poking her finger in about two inches among the feathers before reaching the owl’s body. This big owl was almost two feet tall, but weighs less than 2 pounds. The wing span is 4 1/2 feet across and the owl makes not a sound when it swoops down with its feet out-stretched to sieze a rodent. We know our local barred owls only by their thrilling calls back and forth to each other in the evenings. Barred owls perch on a favored tree during the day. Occassionally, we have discovered evidence of their residency in the form of pellets the owls drop below the tree. This sign is full of compacted bones and fur–the remains of the prey that could not be digested.

In discussing the general disposition of the barred owl , Lyn thought them to be relatively easy to deal with in her experience. She said when she is called upon to rescue an injured barred owl it looks at her with its dark eyes and says, “Please help me.” In contrast, she said that when called upon to rescue an injured great horned owl, she looks into the gold eyes that seem to say, “I will rip your throat out if you approach me.” She summed up by saying that this disposition difference is why she does not bring any great horned owls to these public events.


Red tail hawks have a dark back, light underside often with a belly band of reddish color which this one lacks.

Lynn characterized the red tailed hawk that was rattling around in the kennel as her “diva” bird. Apparently, this elegant hawk had been acquired as a young bird by a falconer who trained the hawk to hunt. The falconer hunted with the bird and was quite upset when the hawk injured its left wing in an hunting accident. While the falconer watched, the hawk siezed a rabbit, but the rabbit twisted in a way that pulled the hawk off balance and the hawk’s left shoulder/wing hit the ground hard injuring the shoulder severely. The falconer spent thousands trying to have the hawk’s wing repaired. Lynn pointed out that this injury could happen to any bird of prey when siezing its dinner, and if it did, that the bird would probably starve because it could not fly well enough to feed itself. Or it would be killed by a stronger bird. Landings and takeoffs are always the most dangerous parts of flying. This is further complicated if you are hauling up a struggling animal in your talons.


The trust level between this big hawk and the woman amazed all of us viewing the interactions.

Red is a crude way to describe the coloring of red tailed hawks because the rich rusty color is difficult to describe. The young birds do not have the red tail. Many red tailed hawks have a horizontal band of reddish color across the chest below the wings. This belly-band varies among individual hawks and some, like the visitor Lyn brought, had no band of color across the white chest. The red tailed hawk is a stocky bird; it stands about 2 feet tall and displays the prominant hooked nose characteristic of most hawks. With a wing spread of four feet, we can easily spot a red tailed hawk from the ground as it is soaring over fields and the edge of forests looking for likely prey–especially small rodents. With excellent eye-sight the red tailed hawk can detect the slightest movement in the grass as a mouse feeds.

When driving north on Highway 540 in the winter months, Jeanne and I have sighted up to forty red tailed hawks perched in trees or on fence posts in the section of highway between Fayetteville and Kansas City. Again, these birds are visually scouring the ground for their next meal. Rarely, we have seen two red tailed hawks perched in the same tree along this route and speculated about their connection to each other.


Lyn lectures, but Igor wants her attentions! Lyn indulges her turkey vulture pal. Both species are social creatures.

“A fluffy white tennis ball with a black head” is how Lynn described Igor as a ten-day old chick when she rescued him. This was twenty years ago when a fisherman competing in a fishing contest at Lake Fayetteville noticed the strange creature at the edge of the grass and Lyn was called to rescue the baby thing. Igor lived in her kitchen for the first month in a effort to keep him warm enough to survive. With all that early contact the tiny turkey vulture imprinted on Lyn and believes they are family. Igor lives in an outdoor flight cage and occassionally other vultures will perch on the upper wire of the enclosed area looking down at Igor. Lyn reports that Igor will look up at the other vulture, but does not attempt to interact.

Most birds do not have a good sense of smell. Turkey vultures are an exception; they depend on their excellent sense of smell to locate a carcass from high above the ground. This is a valuable talent for a scavenger. Black vultures flying the same skies depend on visual sightings and are at a disadvantage. Black vultures watch the actions of these gifted smellers and follow the turkey vultures to a new carcass.


The bald red head serves the vulture well because it is more easily cleaned after attacking a decaying carcass.

Turkey vultures are often sighted in groups. While driving along highway 16W (before the county line) there is a dead tree favored by vultures on cool, misty mornings. I have seen about twenty vultures sitting in that tree. All are facing the rising sun with their wings spread as they dry their feathers after a damp night. Each time I see this sight I think, “These vultures are true sun worshippers!” These groupings probably include several pairs of adult vultures and their offspring who roost together and forage together.


After living together for twenty years, the turkey vulture knows what to expect on these public appearances.

Expect the unexpected! I went to this event at the Shiloh Museum primarily because my photo had won a third place in the amateur outdoor photography contest sponsored by the Audubon Society. What I experienced seeing the raptors and the vulture up close is impossible to describe. It is a highlight of my life because my view of my world has expanded. Witnessing the relationship between Lyn and the birds she has rescued, inspired me to document the birds and their mentor. Morning Star Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is performing miracles each and every day.


Lyn appears here to have a guardian dressed up in a tuxedo.


  1. Paula this is wonderful!!!
    It took me at least 3 visits to read and enjoy it all. I am sharing the link with friends.
    You do wonderful work with that new camera!

    Comment by lila — October 17, 2009 @ 1:39 am

  2. I love turkey Vultures! My neighborhood has this old tree where about 30 or 40 of them congregate. They eyeball you as you walk past… only if you stop to eyeball them back do they take off, and the sound of 60 huge wings is SO impressive.

    Maybe they hang around because of all the roadkill, but hey, someone’s got to eat that smashed armadillo, and it isn’t going to be me. ANyway, super cool to see pics of one so close. I like the way you see their shadow fly over before you see them. Their wingspan is unbelievable.

    Comment by Claire — June 30, 2010 @ 5:35 am

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