LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates Smart Behavior

Cathartes Aura what?

Every evening, like oval Christmas tree ornaments, more than 100 Cathartes aura decorate a few of the eucalyptus trees on the golf course near my home. Their oversized black and brown-feathered bodies dwarf a bald red head punctuated with a sharply hooked beak. Typically, when perched, they show no sign of movement unless a loud noise from a landscaper or a golf cart frightens them sufficiently to escape their resting place. Startled, they flap awkwardly circling the trees as though they're checking out the source of the noise. If nothing seems awry they soon return to land, somewhat precariously, on a branch.

Cathartes aura is the scientific name for turkey vulture or, as some people prefer, "buzzard." (When standing on the ground, at a distance, the bird resembles a wild turkey.) However, these birds spend most their time in the air. Typically, when flying, they soar above us in wobbly circles searching for the thermals that allow them to ascend to higher elevations where they seem to float through the air with their wings raised in the shape of a V. Boyce Thompson bird educators suggest they choose the south side of our Leisure World Oasis because the traffic on I-60 creates the ideal environment for finding the low thermals that can take them to a higher ride where they use their keen sense of smell to locate a food source up to three miles away.

This soaring, low calorie burning activity is perfect for an animal that may have to wait a few days in between meals because unlike other raptors, which eat almost anything, turkey vultures eat only dead animal carcasses (carrion). This is when their unattractive laeck of head feathers is a decided advantage "in the messy business of tearing open dead animals." They have excellent immune systems that prevent them from getting the diseases (botulism, anthrax, salmonella) that typically come with rotting meat. Moreover, post-feeding cleanup is typically a three hour bathing process that includes an ability to use their sterile urine to protect themselves from bacteria that might attack their legs and feet as they feed. That urine is also a powerful coolant. An overheated vulture who urinates on himself can cool his body 20 degrees in three seconds.

Turkey vultures are lazy when it comes to nesting. They prefer to nest away from their food sources-or civilization-using rock crevices, caves, ledges and abandoned hawk or heron nests to lay 1-3 eggs. Typically they return year after year to the same nesting site.

The routine for all the birds settled where I live (and protected by law) is a site to behold. In the case of the turkey vultures they tend to leave In the morning, between 8 and 9 a.m. (later on cool mornings). First they move to outside branches or the tops of trees where they spread their up to five foot wingspan to gather heat that will assist their ascent. Soon one leaves a tree and is soon followed by others, leaving one at a time, and gathering overhead until the sky is eerily filled with circling black creatures soaring higher and higher until they catch the desired thermal and break apart to individual destinations-mostly south of here. Their afternoon returns begins as early as 12:30 p.m. (but mostly between 2 and 3 p.m.) when an occasional bird is soon joined by others, as they, once again, circle and descend. Then, as they reach tree height, they sail one at a time, almost crashing into a branch that seems unable to hold such a large creature. The branch bounces. The bird hangs on. Once again they become golf course sentries until the daily process is repeated the next morning.

Watch for wildlife shows in your area. If they say they've got a turkey vulture. Don't miss the event. You'll be as awestruck as I have been.

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LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates
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