Nature News: Ominous-looking turkey vultures won’t hurt a thing

Published Feb 15 2022 in Seacoast Area newspapers and online at seacoastonline.com

This past weekend I was really worried. There were no birds at the feeders. Usually goldfinch, chickadees and all those other winter bird feeder birds are swarming to the sunflower seeds and suet. Instead, nothing.

It finally occurred to me to look around. High up, at the top of a giant white pine, were two turkey vultures. These eagle-sized birds looked ominous, like birds of prey waiting to swoop down and eat something. I could see why the regulars were in hiding.

However, unlike other birds of prey, these turkey vultures aren’t a threat to my bird feeder birds.  

I don’t know what they were doing up there, perhaps enjoying the sun, but turkey vultures are true scavengers. They feed on carrion – not goldfinch, chickadees and other small birds. They did not have designs on my birdfeeders.

One of two turkey vultures perching high up in a white pine Sue Pike Photo

Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey

Here’s what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has to say about their feeding preferences: “Turkey Vultures eat carrion, which they find largely by their excellent sense of smell. Mostly, they eat mammals but are not above snacking on reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish, and even invertebrates. They prefer freshly dead animals, but often have to wait for their meal to soften in order to pierce the skin. They are deft foragers, targeting the softest bits first and are even known to leave aside the scent glands of dead skunks. Thankfully for them, vultures appear to have excellent immune systems, happily feasting on carcasses without contracting botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella. Unlike their Black Vulture relatives, Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey.”  In fact, turkey vultures are the only scavengers around here (unlike bald eagles, for example) who can’t kill their prey. Their  feet are more chicken-like than hawk or eagle-like, useless for tearing into prey. Their beaks are the powerful part and can tear through even the toughest cow hide. They feed by thrusting their heads into their prey, a good reason for their bald, turkey-like heads.  

Turkey vultures are most closely related to storks

The word raptor refers to a broad group of birds of prey – eagles, falcons, hawks and, until recently, vultures. Vultures appear to be very raptor-like. One of the shared traits of raptors is their ability to rip into prey with their powerful talons. Vultures don’t do this, they use their beaks. DNA evidence places them as more closely related to storks than to other raptors. After seeing these turkey vultures, I started looking at my chickens in a different light. Looks-wise, my chickens seem very vulture-esque. They aren’t related –beware of basing relatedness on looks!

It worries me to see turkey vultures in winter. They aren’t supposed to be here. When I entered my sighting into eBird.com (an online birdwatching database), I had to add additional comments because they are unusual this time of year. In fact, turkey vultures are relatively, geologically speaking, new to New England even in the summer. I have a 1987 bird guide in which their range doesn’t extend north of Massachusetts, but, a number of “southern” species like red-bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, cardinals, mockingbirds and turkey vultures have been pushing their ranges north since the last Ice Age.

New England is part of the ‘normal’ turkey vulture range in the summer, but recently, with our warmer winters (and perhaps increasing deer population) turkey vultures are lingering into the winter. These two looked healthy. With their bright red bald heads, glossy black wings and shiny white beaks they are interesting harbingers of climate change to come.

For past columns go to my archives–I update this as much as I can-I literally have hundreds out there–just need to get them into one place (here)

Nature News: Long-tailed ducks give a glimpse of the Arctic

long-tailed duck

published Dec 28, 2020 in local Seacoast newspapers and online at seacoastonline.com

I moved to North Berwick, Maine, a couple years ago and while getting to know my immediate neighborhood I’ve neglected visiting the beach. Especially in winter, my favorite time, because it isn’t crowded and the bracing wind and ice-lined shore is an exercise in exhilaration. So, I’m trying to visit at least once a week. 

During a recent trip to catch the sunset, it happened to be low tide and walking along the sandy river mouth where it bends to meet the beach, we watched a variety of sea ducks floating in the shallows and diving for prey. A cinnamon-brown female eider dove and brought up a crab.  Tooth-billed mergansers and buffleheads took turns diving down and popping up.  And, most exciting for me, some long-tailed ducks were also out hunting.  

Check out the eponymous two long central tail feathers on this long-tailed duck.

Long-tailed ducks are spectacular birds, the males in particular. Both their summer and winter plumage is a striking contrast of black, brown and white. In the summer, they have mostly black heads with white cheeks, while in the winter they have mostly white heads with black and brown cheeks.

They are on the small size – they looked tiny compared to the large, blocky eiders hunting nearby – and get their name from the two long tail feathers that stream from behind the males. Another distinctive feature of these ducks is the loud, yodeling call of the very vocal males. Sometimes the call is described as sounding like “Tom Connolly,” which gives it one of its common names. 

Two male long-tailed ducks at Parson’s Beach in Kennebunk.

Of all the sea ducks, long-tailed ducks spend the most time in and under water. They are the only ducks to use their wings, not their feet, to propel them through the water, allowing them to dive deeper than other ducks – to depths of up to 200 feet!

The majority of their diet is any kind of aquatic invertebrate (a variety of mollusks, crustaceans, insects, but also fish and even plant matter) they can catch or find. Being able to dive so deep lets them feed on the aquatic invertebrates that live at the very bottom of the water column (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology).  

These are true ducks of the north. They have a circumpolar distribution, breeding on small tundra lakes, bogs and wetlands of the high Arctic: Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Arctic Russia and Northern Canada. They come down here, to the coast (and large freshwater lakes that don’t freeze over), to overwinter, oftentimes forming large flocks that will stay out at sea unless pushed inland by a storm.  

One of the reasons I love living in New England is that while we can still enjoy nice warm summers, we get a taste of the Arctic every winter when the Northern winds howl and bring blizzards and ice storms.

We also get beautiful Arctic migrants frequenting our backyards. Watching a flock of snow buntings sweep over a barren icy field, or a snowy owl hunkered down in the dunes, or a long-tailed duck diving for mussels feels, to me, like the Arctic is reaching out and saying hello. With rapid climate change becoming more and more of a reality, I think we need to grab these encounters with the wild north while we still can.