The Turkey Vulture, known to many birdwatchers as the TV, doesn’t get respect. They are scorned by many in media, but these large birds have an unjustified public relations problem. TVs are nature’s cleanup crew.
They ride thermals, and in southern New Mexico we have thermals aplenty, looking for their next meal. They are scavengers, eating carrion or dead animals, and they have a keen sense of smell, thereby finding their next food source. It’s not unusual to find them cleaning up a roadkill as you drive. While driving to Big Bend National Park, I found three javelinas dead in the road together, and the TVs moved in, almost being killed themselves. One was hit already. I stopped and dragged the javelinas off the road for the TVs to feast on safely.
TVs are a summer resident, coming in March and April and leaving in October thorugh November. It is the most widespread of vultures occupying all of the continental United States, Southern Canada, and Central and South America. They can be mistaken for raptors such as eagles or hawks, but if the soaring bird has wings raised in a V and is making wobbly circles, it’s probably a TV. They are all dark, nearly black, with a red head. When they soar, you can see a light or white color under the wings, except near the body and the fore wing where it is black.
Once paired, vultures will locate a nesting site well away from areas of human disturbance. Not much effort goes into the nest building process. Instead, they look for sheltered locations such as hollow trees, cliff alcoves, rock caves or dense thickets where eggs are laid on existing debris or simply the bare floor of their nest site. Birds normally lay one or two eggs that are tended by both parents. Hatchlings appear in about 37 days. First flight of the young birds comes in about nine weeks.
Turkey Vultures are accustomed to living near humans and snacking off of our leavings. You will often see them in farm fields or hanging out next to the road. During migration and around roost sites, you may find large congregations of TVs. I counted about 50 at one time soaring in Big Bend National Park during migration. TVs will roost at night in groups from a few to many. Sometimes hundreds will roost in one location. To see a large roost locally, head toward the NMSU horse farm on Union Avenue in Mesilla Park around dusk.
This feature is provided by Mesilla Valley Audubon Society, a non-profit conservation and natural history organization that meets August through April. Meetings are free and open to the public. In September, MVAS will be initiating a series of bird walks for beginners. More information at mvaudubon.org.