Just what I needed for my bird feeder: a road-killed woodchuck. I slammed on the brake, pulled the ear to the side of the road, dashed out, shooed away the flies, grabbed the bloated corpse by the tail and popped open the trunk. As I was about to drop the body in—my wife will never notice the bloodstains, I thought—a passing driver slowed down and gave me the once-over. Better a suspicious stranger eyeing me than the couple who surprised me the other day as I pawed through a supermarket dumpster in quest of a spoiled chicken.
Let others feed robins, cardinals or purple martins; the birds for me are turkey vultures. My vulture feeder is in a brushy field a hundred feet downhill from my house, and the three-by-three-foot feeding platform, set six feet above the ground, is high enough and large enough to assure the vultures that they won't be ambushed by a predator. Despite their fearsome appearance—bald red head, big beak and a wing-spread of about six feet—vultures are very wary birds, and why another creature would even dream of attacking one is beyond my comprehension. The stinking breath of a turkey vulture, so the saying goes, "would cloud a photographer's lens." And, to top it off, vultures vomit on strangers. Like all birds of prey the turkey vulture has superb eyesight, but it may also have the keenest sense of smell of any soaring bird in the world.
As a rule I set out the day's fare around 10 a.m., because the vultures are late risers that like to stretch their wings and sun themselves before taking to the air. (If I set the table the night before, crows are likely to have had at the food by the first light of dawn.) On heavy-rain days I don't put out food, because without the sun the birds tend to stay put, rather than fly.
Vultures quickly become accustomed to a free lunch, and on a sunny day they show up promptly to check out the menu, which might be dead mice, chipmunks and squirrels: chicken, meat and cold cuts; extraordinarily ripe Brie, Roquefort and mozzarella cheese; and the vultures' favorites: filleted carcasses of largemouth bass, sunnies and crappies and the heads of brown trout.
Vultures are masters of soaring and gliding flight. With their wings set in a dihedral position, a slight V, they seem to stay aloft for hours without a single beat of their wings. They do this by getting lifts from thermals (rising currents o( hot air) and up-drafts (caused when the wind is deflected upward off a hill or a mountainside). Inasmuch as vultures feed on animals only if they are already dead and dead animals are not as numerous as live animals, vultures have to be capable of sustained (light, with no unnecessary expenditure of energy.
All this helps to attract turkey vultures to a well-placed feeder; the birds don't have to work very hard. After they've been south for the winter, they check out my feeder upon returning north. They won't land and eat if people are around, so when I see them coming I hide behind a window to watch. Ever on the alert, they glide downward from a thousand feet above me, slowly circling down and around and down again. As they fly by me at eye level, their beguiling aerial ballet, performed by from one to a half-dozen vultures, is four-star theater that can last as long as 20 minutes. Turkey vultures are like giant feathered versions of the paper airplanes I made as a boy, except that my planes always crashed, while the vultures keep on gliding by.
Eventually one will put on the wing brakes, land gently on the platform and look around, then look around again and yet again before holding down the day's special with a foot and tearing into it with its beak. Should another vulture venture to land on the platform, the original occupant is likely to reach over and expel the interloper by biting it on the neck.
For all their love of the dead, vultures won't dine on just any stiff. The major dictum of la cuisine de vautours is, The more rotten the better. This is an important consideration for anyone who wants to feed turkey vultures. Along with other New World vultures, turkey vultures lack the razor-sharp bills of their Old World counterparts. The griffon vultures of Africa, for example, can strip off a rhino's hide with the ease of a chef peeling a ripe avocado. Turkey vultures apparently depend on other creatures, such as maggots and flies, to soften the flesh of a fresh cadaver. In fact, several days passed before the vultures finished the road-killed wood-chuck mentioned above, and even then they began by probing the soft spots—the eyes and the anus.
Both New World and Old World vultures evolved some 50 million years ago—but strange as it may seem, they are not related. They look alike because of what scientists call convergence. This occurs when unrelated species in distant regions occupy similar niches. And it explains why the Tasmanian wolf resembles the North American wolf and why the South American fish known as the dorado looks like a salmon.
Old World vultures belong to the same order as eagles, hawks and falcons (Falconiformes), while New World vultures belong to the order that includes storks (Ciconiiformes). One behavioral trait that vultures and storks share is that they excrete waste on their legs to cool themselves.