The Hinkley Connection

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

This week we take a different turn, from tiny brown birds that are hard to notice, to enormous, mainly black birds that are hard to miss in the sky. We are looking at the Turkey Vulture, "Carthartes aura". "Carthartes", the Genus name, comes from the Greek, a purifier, an interesting connection to this bird's penchant for cleaning up dead carcasses. The "New World Vulture" family includes the nearly extinct California Condor, which has a wingspread of over nine feet -- huge!

Over the past few days, Nantucketers have been noticing several Turkey Vultures floating in the sky above our island. Only recently has the Turkey Vulture become a frequent sight here, yet another symptom of Global Warming. However, if even a few are around, many people report them.

Turkey Vultures are immense and are often mistaken for eagles. They also love to soar in the air, seldom flapping, often catching thermals to ride thousands of feet up. Their wing span is around six feet, slightly smaller than a Bald Eagle and larger than most Ospreys. Vultures look small-headed in flight, since they have no feathers on their head and neck. They fly, tipping back and forth, with their wings held upwards in a "vee". Many people see Turkey Vultures flying over and their first thought is "eagle".

The illustration compares the vulture with two similar soaring birds seen on Nantucket. Ospreys, which are gone for the season, show a bend, known as a dihedral in the wing, when they fly. We show an immature Eagle, since that's the plumage most often seen here. It takes four years to get a nice white-headed adult. Eagles appear as imposing, rather straight-winged bird that shows a lot of white in the wing. They are a lot scarcer than vultures here.

Historically, "Birds of Nantucket", by Folger and Griscom, published in 1948, lists only a single record from May 1, 1930. In the first edition of Edith's and my guide in 1976, we show it as a rare spring and fall migrant. In 2003, its status is "uncommon" year round. We had two on the Christmas Bird Count in 2000 and 2001, and then eight for last winter's count -- a very severe winter. Probably they are finding deer remains to feed on. Since they are present all summer, it's possible they are nesting. They prefer to nest on or near the ground, often using the remains of a hollow tree, so our island has plenty of spots they could use. Both parents share nesting duties and the cycle is a long one. After hatching, it takes a young vulture a full ten weeks to be on its own. Even an adult can seem pretty awkward getting into the air.

The Turkey Vulture gets its name from the pink, bare skin on the head and neck, similar to that of a turkey. In vultures, this has developed because of their carrion-loving habits. They are often working on carcasses that are pretty 'ripe', and having bare skin makes them less susceptible to picking up infections and parasites that would make them ill.

Vultures fly high in the sky but seem to quickly home in on something dead to eat. Scientists have been studying them for years, trying to figure out how they do that. It turns out that they are one of the few bird species which actually has a superb sense of smell. On the BBC TV series "The Life Of Birds by David Attenborough", a rotten piece of meat was buried under some leaves on the forest floor under the thick canopy in the rain forest. Within 45 minutes they had Turkey Vultures circling and soon thereafter they had found the meat.

Now for Hinkley -- Hinkley, Ohio is a town not far from Lake Erie, which has a Vulture Festival every year on March 15. A direct spin-off from the swallows returning to Capistrano, the people of Hinkley decided they needed a spring celebration as well and vultures provided the medium. In actuality, global warming has undoubtedly affected Hinkley's vultures to perhaps stay the winter. Still, huge numbers swirl and circle north over that part of Ohio the middle of every March and it's a great time to get out and watch them.

Our vulture connection to Hinkley is probably pretty tenuous, since they tend to migrate north and south, rather than east and west, but what the heck, I defy you to tell ours from theirs. A vulture in flight is a marvelous sight, over Ohio or Nantucket.

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.