Thursday, September 5, 2013

Appreciating Vultures

The first time I can recall seeing Turkey Vultures was in mid Spring, while taking a trip to Pere Marquette State Park in Illinois.

My husband, daughter, and I were crowded into my old Mazda pickup; my husband was driving, my daughter, in her car seat was in the front seat, and I was wedged into the mockery of an extended cab.  We took HWY 94 to HWY 67 into Illinois, and drove along the scenic Great River Road.

Along the River Road upstream of Alton, IL, if you haven’t been, there are tall bluffs that reach up into the sky.  Mirrored by the river just opposite the bluffs, the road is the only interruption between the two.  Trees adorn the summit, while barges and boats drift along the mighty Mississippi.  It truly is picturesque.  I imagine Charles Wysocki, had he seen this road, would have painted a breathtaking picture of it.

On this particular April afternoon, as the sun shone brightly in the sky, I watched through the back window of the truck as the road drifted away behind me.  As I watched,  I noticed a few large birds circling above the bluffs.  Excitedly (and in my naiveté) I asked my husband if they were Bald Eagles, knowing that Bald Eagles make their way to Grafton, IL during the winter months, and I proceeded to describe them.  He told me they were probably Turkey Vultures, based upon my description, but he’d have to see them to know for sure.  I was disheartened; I wanted to know, for sure, what kind of birds I had just seen.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long.

We came around a bend in the road, and there before our eyes, at least 20 vultures circled above us.  As we watched they broke off into smaller groups, and formed a sort of scavenging parade along the edge of the bluffs.  I was in awe!  The sight of so many birds circling, teetering, riding the air currents in search of food absolutely amazed me and I remember feeling a strong sense of reverence.  I was so excited I probably sounded like a small child who had just made some sort of amazing discovery, such as finding a caterpillar for the first time.

And that was the beginning of my fascination for Turkey Vultures.

The Turkey Vultures like to follow guests as they walk past the exhibits (who's watching who?)

My next encounter with Turkey Vultures was at the World Bird Sanctuary.  On one particular visit, there were a couple of Turkey Vultures in the Outdoor Exhibit, and as I walked by one of the vultures walked next to me, from inside his enclosure.  I got a kick out of it so I stopped, looked at him, then turned around and started walking back up the path.  Again, he followed me.  I walked up and down a few times and each time, he followed me.  Finally, I knelt down and started talking to him (I love animals--what can I say?) and then in the way he looked at me it appeared he was interested in what I was saying (of course I realize he was probably hoping I had some food for him, but his apparent attentiveness was amusing).

The Hooded Vulture (above) is just one of the non-native species on display at WBS

Being that close to the vulture, and looking into his eyes, I sensed a sweetness, a gentleness, and at that moment I fell absolutely in love with Turkey Vultures.  And, through my visits to World Bird Sanctuary, I have come to love all varieties of vultures (I find the Hooded Vultures especially adorable!).

Many people see vultures as “gross” or “ugly,” but I certainly don’t. I see them as absolutely crucial to the health of every living thing on this planet. Sure they eat carrion, but people eat some pretty “gross” things too.

If you are one of the people who find Turkey Vultures to be unpleasant, I encourage you to take a trip to World Bird Sanctuary for International Vulture Awareness Day, which is Saturday, 7 September.  You can get up close to these amazing animals. And, while you may still find vultures to be “gross,” the knowledge you will come away with is sure to give you a new found respect for these important creatures.

Submitted by Sara Borgard, Guest Writer

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