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January 14, 2005

Hot Vulture Sex

Rushed home from work during the lunch hour; there was a Nature Emergency, as according to the Sainted Wife a number of huge black birds were roosting in a backyard pine. What species of bird they were she could not say.

I realize in some souls the inability of a suburban housewife to accurately identify one of the 650+ North American bird species may not rise to the level of "Emergency," but none of those souls live in the same house as me. Also, there was some question as to whether or not the birds were feeding on something on the ground--perhaps a dead animal--conceivably giving me yet another species to identify, as well as the eventual promise of a skull for the garage.

Now there are a number of birds that could pass the "big and black" identification test. Crows, obviously, but SW has been around me long enough to know a murder when she sees one. Wild Turkeys in a poorish light could pass the test, but the feeding behavior convinced me she was looking at either Black or Turkey Vultures.

But which? I've seen both, but rarely up close, and never roosting or feeding in the woods behind the house. I've always wanted to load up some of the ubiquitous road kill we get here in the Triangle and set up a vulture feeding station, but for some reason she has objected to this, even after I promised to wrap the various deer carcasses with plastic before loading them into the mini-van.

I don't see why. After all, she's got no problem with the feeders I've set up for the other birds.

And yes, it has to be the minivan. Rigor mortis sets in pretty quickly, and unless I was to saw off the deer's legs first I could never get one into the back of the SUV. There's just more legroom in the minivan, once the seats are taken out. that I think about it, there's nothing inherently wrong with removing the legs first. Not a lot of meat on the lower portions to begin with, plus the four extra openings would allow the vultures easier ingress to the interior of the deer, presumably allowing a larger scrum to form around the body than normal.

Nothing better on a hot, sunny day than sitting out in the backyard, beer in hand, watching vultures fight over deer entrails, or so I would imagine.

As it turns out, the aves in question turned out to be Black Vultures, but they were not eating. What I observed once I arrived home appeared to be a courtship display, with what I assumed to be the female perching in one spot, then being approached by a succession of males--about 12 in all. The prospective suitor would bob his head a number of times, attempt to rub beaks, then be chased away, or the female would fly to another perch. It seems early in the season for such behavior, but it's been warm enough recently that perhaps the vultures think spring has come early this year.

I tried to take a number of pictures, but the digital camera isn't really built for such a task. This is the best one I snapped, of the female and an eventually unsuccessful suitor.

Two of the ornaments on Death's Christmas Tree.

She's on the left, but you already knew that, right? Once she does take a mate, it will be for life, as black vultures mate for life. Interestingly, once mated the pair will always attempt to mate in private, as public fornication is even more frowned upon by black vultures than it is by humans.

Bizarrely, black vultures seem to have a social convention that prevents philandering. Any vulture that attempts to have sex in a public place (at a roost, or alongside a carcass) will be roundly attacked by other vultures in the vicinity.

Chewing on raw cow rectum in public is perfectly ok, though.

Posted by Bigwig at January 14, 2005 02:20 PM | TrackBack
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I had a turkey vulture infestation for a few years in a row. They'd roost in the large pines in the backyard, only in winter. What a horrible mess they make. It was interesting watching them, though. For a while.

One particularly snowy winter we observed one of them on the ground in a snowstorm, still alive but not moving. Snow piled up on its head like a pointy cap, and then it disappeared. My daughter found it in the spring and it was the coolest skull we ever had. The beak was even intact and it made a great talking puppet. Henry was his name, rest his soul.

Posted by: rick at January 14, 2005 03:23 PM

Florida is full of turkey vultures. They should be the state bird, not the mockingbird... Once last year, when I was living in an apartment by a lake, I got to observe a couple of vultures fighting over what I was sure were the attentions of a lady vulture, as she was the one sitting off to the side watching.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at January 15, 2005 09:14 PM

Stop me before I pun again! But I can't help myself.

Vultures would get divorced, but they can't afford the carrion costs.

Posted by: Grumpy Old Man at January 18, 2005 05:28 AM
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