March 27, 2011

Creepy creatures in the Oak canopy

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:

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


  1. I agree often our negative opinion of a creature (or a plant) is not borne out by reality. I have also read good things about vultures. They are such unusual birds, I don't think I have seen them anywhere but in the zoo...

  2. Good info! I see many of these soaring above my apartment all the time. Ugly creatures but just another piece to the web of life! Thanks for sharing

  3. I have a great respect for vultures. Several years ago I saw a program on the decline of vultures in different countries, and the many problems arising from that decline. It makes you stop and think!

  4. Those turkey vultures have a face only a mother could love! Great photo of them all sitting in the trees. It does look very spooky! I see them regularly flying around my area. They like to sit on my neighbor's roof! They eat all the road kill so they are nature's recyclers. Thanks for mentioning me!

  5. We have been seeing them recently which is a first for us here...never knew they appeared in early spring...just thought they hung around...they are huge birds when you see them up close...they serve such an important purpose although hard to love them...

  6. I really like turkey vultures, and believe there is no such thing as an ugly animal except perhaps humans because of their appalling habits. They are beautiful in flight, soaring for miles, and can easily be distinguished from hawks by their widely separated primary feathers like fingers. They have an amazingly developed sense of smell, which works for miles as I recall. They have no feathers on their heads and necks to keep clean and eliminate parasites. Although they are valuable as nature's re-users of carrion, they eat a wide range of food. We are lucky that such a valuable bird has adapted itself to our destructive ways and not gone extinct. Thanks for profiling this wonderful bird.

  7. We have had turkey vultures visit us before, too. They often roost on the top of their barn, and I agree they're pretty darned ugly. When I think of nature, I think of pretty flowers and stately trees, but you're so right--the less glamourous parts are just as necessary. A great post!

  8. It's fascinating to see nature in all her ugly or beautiful naturalness... and right outside your own window!

  9. @Masha: I've seen them frequently especially during the summer months, but never in a huge group in my backyard before. That was eerie.

    @Mike: Thanks. They are amazing to watch when they fly. Wish we could have captured a shot of one swooping over the house.

    @Holley: Yes, I admit I pretty much took them for granted until a couple of days ago. Thinking about all the decomposing meat that would be sitting around without them makes me appreciate them.

    @Karin: LOL. You are so right. I'm glad they weren't roosting on the roof. But having them hang out in the woods temporarily was OK, and kind of fascinating.

    @Donna: I'd seen them more on hot summer days before--hanging on air currents and circling around. So weird to see them swooping and hanging out in the backyard!

  10. @Carolyn: I should appreciate them more than I do. But I'm glad they're around to dispose of rotting meat and prevent the spread of bacteria.

    @Rose: In the absence of pretty flowers, this is what I have in the backyard right now--amazing Oak trees and the wildlife living in them. Looking forward to the flowers, though. :)

    @Laurrie: Yes, it's wonderful when the story comes to your backyard. There are lots of fascinating stories back there in the garden and in the woods!

  11. That must have been a wonderful sight to see them in the tree. They are an oddity of nature in form, but pretty amazing in function. Such a great service they provide as landscape janitors.

  12. You are so right...letting nature 'be' IS being sustainable. Pretty interesting illustration! They have been here more lately, I've noticed. We have so many squirrels and they are often hit by cars and lie out on the streets. Thank goodness for the turkey vultures! I can drive out to the store and when I come back, the road will be cleaned up! I have had 'mixed feelings' about them too...they just aren't the 'best looking' creatures out there! But they serve such an important purpose! Thanks for joining my project;-)

  13. We have a lot of turkey vultures here. Lots of deer + lots of speeding cars = lots of turkey vultures. They are pretty creepy but are fascinating from the point of view that they help fill a vital role in the ecosystem. They are avain garbage men!

  14. Eeek...I always think, "what's dead out there?" too when I see vultures.

  15. @Donna: Yes, it was a fun, albeit creepy experience. I haven't seen them since, so hopefully it was just a stopover for them.

    @Jan: Weird that they can clean up so fast! Thanks so much for your great project and for allowing me to be part of it.

    @TS: Yeah, I appreciate them more than I used to. I do enjoy watching them fly on air currents in open areas during the summer.

    @Hanni: That was my first thought--especially seeing so many of them in the backyard. Weird.

  16. We have lots of turkey vultures here in the hills of South Texas. Yes, they are really creepy and downright ugly, but as your wonderful post pointed out, extremely useful in the cycle of life. Thanks for reminding us of that.

  17. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Being green should be common sense. It is how many of us lived not too long ago. And it does not have to be about inflexibility or fanaticism. It should be an intention and a clear goal but done with patience, persistence, and tolerance. I do not see the point in proselytizing. I think it is important for people to make their own choices because then they will fully commit to them. Great post!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! I keep thinking, it doesn't have to be that difficult if we just follow our forefathers' examples. And preaching about it doesn't really help because most people have good intentions. It's just a matter of sharing information and best practices. Happy 2012!