Spot that Flying ‘V’

There is something so captivating about seeing a large bird soaring overhead. Lately I’ve found myself craning my neck to follow the graceful swooping of one or many large birds, stopping in my tracks to just watch the majesty of their flight.

Whether it’s during a hike up Christmas Hill, a stroll in my Royal Oak neighborhood or a drive up the Malahat (as a passenger of course; I don’t stick my head out the window to glimpse a bird, well, not usually), I can’t resist the pull of stopping to look and wonder.

Late summer and early fall are perfect times to observe some of our large birds of prey such as eagles and hawks but most of the time, I am seeing vultures. The word vulture may, for some folks, inspire disgust or even fear. We’ve all seen the classic Western films where vultures are circling, waiting for the hapless victims to collapse so that they can swoop down and peck at them. This bad rap is undeserved. Vultures are not only harmless to people, they are quite important in the balance of nature, providing an important service as nature’s clean-up crew, reducing the spread of disease with their ability to consume rotting meat that would make other animals ill.

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There are two major categories that divide the 23 species of vultures found around the world. Those that are found in Europe, Asia and Africa are called Old World species and those which live in the Americas and the Caribbean are New World species. Despite their shared title the two are not closely related, in fact the latter are thought by many scientists to actually be more closely related to storks than raptors. However due to fulfilling the same ecological niche they are still categorized together.

Despite their raptor status, vultures eat mostly carrion (dead animals), only occasionally hunting live prey. Unlike most raptors they are unable to move their food due to weak feet and legs and blunt talons. They also lack power in their bills which is why you will often see them coming to feed after another predator has begun the process of opening up the carcass. Most vultures have heads and necks bare of feathers, which is important for reducing the spread of bacteria and parasites.

In the weird and gross but kinda cool fact department, vultures are known to urinate on their own legs, serving a twofold purpose, killing bacteria they may have picked up while feeding and cooling themselves on a hot day. Here’s another one for you: unlike other raptors, vultures have the unique defense technique of vomiting on an attacker, a behavior most common while nesting. This is also advantageous as it lightens their body weight to allow for easier escape.

Vultures tend to feed, roost and fly in groups making them far more social than most other raptors. These groups are commonly called a committee, but can be referred to as a venue or a volt as well. They migrate in groups of up to a hundred individuals, primarily soaring on thermal currents, which is why they are rarely seen moving long distances early or late in the day when temperatures drop.

Our one and only resident species of vulture on Vancouver Island, and in fact in all of British Columbia, is the Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura; the genus means “purifier” or “ecological cleaner”). Nearly eagle-sized with a wing span of 6 feet, this majestic bird flies with its wings in a distinctive shallow V shape. Upon closer view, you may notice two-toned blackish wings and the lack of a distinct head. This is not because the vulture is headless! It is simply due to the fact that without feathers the head is quite naked, and appears quite small. As mentioned previously, this lack of feathers allows the head and beak to stay relatively clean and free of the gunk of rotting flesh. Most Turkey vultures are migratory, overwintering in Central and South America and then returning here to breed in the spring. Vancouver Island and southern BC is the most northerly part of their range.

So the next time you see that graceful flying V overhead, I hope you’ll take a moment to appreciate the fact that they are not only using some amazing principles of physics (specifically lift, thrust and drag), have some gross but cool adaptations, are able to take advantage of some pretty great thermals, but they are also on the lookout for a rotten animal to take off our hands!

Renee Cenerini is the Program Manager at Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary.