I drove around a bit on Memorial Day and took in a few of the sights. Folks were busy planting flowers, walking their dogs, unfurling flags, and firing up their grills. The fields were exploding with yellow Salsify and the Locust trees were laden with dangling white flower clusters. It was a grand day for a picnic and a feast for the naturalist’s eye.
Atop a slight rise close to I-23, I spied a few picnickers assembled in a field for a Memorial Day feast. They were only slightly taken aback when I stopped along the roadside to observe them. A few unsure glances indicated that my presence was known, but the party was otherwise unfazed. The meal was wrapping up and it was time to sit about and soak up the mid-day sun. There were plenty of leftovers for a nosy stranger, but I chose not to approach any closer. It appeared that venison was on the menu – dried venison with the hair still attached. A garnish of putrid liver and a rope of leathery intestine completed the cuisine du jour.
These picnickers happened to be Turkey Vultures. They were feeding on an old road-killed deer carcass (see my sketch here). Actually, the deer in question was probably a road “injured” animal that survived long enough to walk up the rise from the road before collapsing. There wasn’t much left at this point, but one can never get all the meat off a good chunk of barbeque. As nature’s sanitation specialists, these birds were doing what they do best.
Turkey Vultures are one of the largest birds in our area. With their large dark bodies and naked red heads, they look very much like turkeys when hastily viewed on the ground – thus the name. In the air, however, their six foot wingspan and incredible soaring abilities put them in a class all by themselves. There are so many fascinating features of this bird that I’ll need to leave that discussion for another time (take a look at this website dedicated to them). A bird that has perfected the art of projectile vomiting and pees on its own legs certainly has my attention, but I am left considering a bigger question.
Vultures are now a very common Michigan bird, but such wasn’t always the case. There is strong evidence that these birds have spread their range into our state only within the last century or so. Should there ever be a movie made about them, I can see that movie announcer guy narrating the trailer with “In a world where animal populations are in decline, one big black bird is on the rise and they’re coming after you.”
You see, vultures are literally coming after us. Where ever we clear forests, build roads, and create farms they come after us. Farms produce dead livestock, roads create an endless supply of carrion and cleared forests have created a habitat for an endless supply of deer which in turn contribute to the endless supply of carrion.
It is even possible that some that the northward expansion of these native southerners started back in the mid 1800’s. During the Civil War, large Union army camps provided a trail of dead horses, slaughtered farm animals and other vulture-tempting waste leading north. Since 1850 and the end of the “Little Ice Age,” warming temperatures may have contributed to this expansion by creating a more suitable breeding clime here in the north.
In Walter Barrows Michigan Bird Life (published in 1912), the Turkey Vulture was established, but restricted to, the lower two tiers of counties. It was a regular summer breeding bird by then. According to Barrows, “Jerome Trombley states that a pair nests regularly in a hollow sycamore tree near the River Raisin at Petersburg, Monroe County, and others pairs have nested in that vicinity.” My picnicking quartet wasn’t located too far from Petersburg and may, in fact, be related to Mr. Trombly’s birds (or at least cousins twice removed).
Today, this vulture is found throughout the Lower Peninsula and is a regular in the Upper Peninsula as well. It’s been a century of progress fueled by our ability to hit small animals and fixate deer in our headlights.
Turkey Vultures still need to retreat south during the winter and get their fix of roadside armadillos. It should be no surprise to find out that they now tend to follow our major roadways while journeying south.
A century and a half ago, my four picnicking buzzards (another common name) would have been an unusual site. The vulture was not a common resident when Michigan became a state, and it is entirely possible that it may once again become uncommon within the next century and a half. Now, that’s carrion for thought.