As the hubby and I sat down to dinner last night at dusk, a big bird of prey swooped over the backyard. My first thought was, “Cool, it’s a hawk.” I’m terrible at differentiating between hawks, eagles, and turkey vultures from a distance, but the hubby is an expert. He confirmed the big bird was a turkey vulture. “Ick,” I said. I’ve never been a fan.
That would have been interesting enough since the wingspan was huge. But then dozens of the birds of doom started flying over the yard and landing in our Oak trees. Talk about creepy. We watched them for several minutes circling above and flying in and out of the trees and over the house.
The Oak trees in the small forest plot at the back of our lot are like characters in a good novel. I think of them as the foundation for the property’s personality. In recent years, housing and commercial developments nearby have lured wildlife to the undisturbed Oak forests that remain in the area. When we moved here more than a decade ago, there were plenty of small game animals—chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and so on.
But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I saw a deer, and later a family of raccoons. I think we have occasional foxes, too. And now it appears our Oak trees are a roosting site—temporarily, at least—for turkey vultures.
I must be honest—I’m repelled by vultures. They aren’t particularly attractive, especially when you see them close-up. And they only eat dead animals, so seeing dozens of them in the backyard made me think, “What died out there?” I figured they were finding small dead mammals in the woods that had died during the winter and were now exposed with the receding snow.
That may be part of it, but further research revealed that early spring is the normal time for turkey vultures to return to the northern states. They’ll probably move to a different site when the Oak trees leaf out, since they prefer to roost in leafless or dead trees near open areas. They didn’t even spend much time here; this was the same scene about 30 minutes later.
Part of me wants to chase the vultures as far away from here as possible. They signify death and carnage. But as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources describes on its educational site, “Turkey vultures act as nature's ultimate garbage collector, recycler, and scavenger.” Their removal of decaying animals ultimately protects plants and living animals from the spread of diseases and harmful bacteria.
Sometimes nature isn’t pretty or pleasant. Sometimes our first reaction is to try to get rid of or destroy critters and plants that we perceive as disgusting (check out Southern Meadows’ recent post about the Eastern Tent Caterpillar). But when we research more about these creatures we often find they serve a vital purpose in the circle of life. Borrowing a phrase from medical ethics, sometimes it’s best to “first, do no harm.” In other words, sometimes it’s best to do nothing and to simply appreciate the niche of nature that a species fills.
To learn more about turkey vultures, check out these links:
- The Peregrine Fund’s site;
- The Turkey Vulture Society’s list of vulture benefits;
- The Wisconsin DNR’s environmental education site; and
- Wikipedia’s entry on turkey vultures.
To learn more about sustainable practices, visit Jan’s blog, Thanks for Today. She’s hosting the Gardeners’ Sustainable Living Project through April 15, in honor of Earth Day.
Photos by Ernie Stetenfeld