Our Beloved Turkey Vulture

With a face only a mother could love, it is perhaps surprising that a turkey vulture can inspire so much admiration and supportive care from humans it encounters. This is the saga of TV, an injured turkey vulture that lived on our farm for about seven months in 2022.

TV’s first encounter with Tom.

In May, our neighbor Tom Sargeant sent us a text showing him holding a giant bald-headed bird he found walking around in an open shed.

“What kind of bird is this?” Tom asked my husband.

“Holy cow! A turkey vulture! How are you holding it?”

“Something is wrong with the wing,” Tom replied. He left the vulture to its own devices. Already living in this same shed was an ornery rooster named Olaf. Perhaps the injured turkey vulture was drawn to a kindred spirit, and would leave after a bit of quiet recovery. When I went looking for the giant bird later that day it was nowhere to be seen.

A week or so later, my son Langdon called me all excited. “Mom, I’m working in the shed, and the turkey vulture is back! I tried to catch it, but it crawled under the truck in the front yard. I think it’s still under there.”

Turkey vulture under an old truck on the farm.

Curious and excited myself, I realized I could bring the bird a treat. The day before, my farm cat Jimi had killed and then abandoned a rabbit. To keep my dogs from rolling all over it, I had tossed the carcass in the ditch, but it was easy enough to locate and still relatively fresh. I later learned that turkey vultures prefer fresh carrion, not super rotten carcasses. Even though they have a remarkably good sense of smell compared to other birds and can detect dead animals over one mile away, they can only smell carrion 12-24 hours old (1). As unobtrusively as possible, I tossed the dead rabbit under the truck where the turkey vulture was hiding. When I checked later, the rabbit was gone but so was the vulture.

Turkey vulture in the woods by the pond.

Another week passed without anyone seeing the bird. We assumed it had died. Then, my youngest son Winston stormed into the house yelling, “I saw the turkey vulture! It’s down by the pond.” He and I drove to the far edge of our property and caught sight of the giant black bird deep in the woods of the slough. Now I felt a little desperate for the creature. As we watched it clumsily thrash through the underbrush, it was obvious it could not fly. And what on earth was it eating? It had been several weeks since Tom first spotted it. Could a single rabbit suffice to keep it alive? How far had it been roaming in search of food? Recently I had seen a bunch of turkey vultures (a “kettle”) soaring over this part of our block; had our earth-bound friend joined the “wake” of feeding vultures? (2) Besides worrying about the bird’s access to food and whether it had to compete with healthier vultures, I wondered when it would get eaten by one of the coyotes known to live in this habitat.

At this point, I left a message for a local wildlife rehabilitator asking if they would take on an injured turkey vulture if I could catch it. I never heard back, so I assumed it meant that turkey vultures were not a species that qualified for rehabilitation. Some species of wildlife are so prevalent (or invasive or nuisance animals) that they do not warrant a rehabilitator’s limited time and resources. I realized nature would take its course: the bird would probably starve to death.

Acting on a tip from a commuter, Dr. Kim Everson rushed to collect a freshly killed raccoon for TV.

Still, everyone who heard about the bird wanted to help the “poor buzzard” — the slang term buzzard is not correct, actually used to identify several kinds of hawk in Europe (3). The staff of St. Bernard’s Animal Medical Center, for example, spent commutes and several lunch breaks driving around looking for roadkill. Roadkill–seemingly ubiquitous–is surprisingly hard to come by when you want to collect it for an adopted turkey vulture. At one point, I collected a stinky, maggoty, decayed gull and possum and left the carcasses where the bird had last been spotted. These went untouched, and I learned that fresh is best even though a turkey vulture’s amazing digestive tract can deactivate anthrax, tuberculosis and even rabies in their carrion meals (4).

Over the course of the summer, one of us would spot TV here or there on the property. Realizing it was still alive and well, but literally sick of searching for and collecting roadkill, we occasionally left store-bought raw chicken or liver in the vicinity where it had last been seen. We never knew for sure if TV or some other scavenger had eaten the meat, but every few weeks TV would pop up again to our delight.

As the seasons changed, we became alarmed for TV. Turkey vultures do not overwinter in Wisconsin (5). As was the trend, weeks would pass without any word of TV. But our neighbor Tom started bumping into TV more often in the fall. Increasingly TV acted less terrified during these encounters with Tom: TV would flop off about ten feet away and then just watch until Tom left the area.

Early in December, Langdon rushed into the house panting, “TV is in the driveway! Come look!” Sure enough, the turkey vulture was walking along the edge of our cheese cave. Langdon had spotted it pecking the eyeballs out of a dead squirrel we had intended to deliver down to the pond later. TV startled as Langdon tossed the squirrel toward it, then disappeared into the tall grasses on the hill. It being the first time TV was spotted so far south of Tom’s house, we wondered if it had decided to walk south for the winter! If so, we held little hope for TV’s survival because winter was setting in with a vengeance.

The turkey vulture showed up in our driveway in early December.

A few days before winter storm Elliott battered the Midwest, my husband spotted TV sunning itself outside the door of his hunting shack. TV had been enjoying the shelter and sun-warmed dark camouflage of the building for several days as evidenced by the voluminous (but apparently disease free) bird droppings all over the front stoop (6). “That’s it!” my husband declared. One of TV’s biggest supporters, Kirk could not tolerate this level of filth in this personal sanctuary. Kirk enlisted the help of another neighbor Marty Reitz to finally capture TV.

Dr. Kim Everson admires the turkey vulture up close as Marty holds it.

Accustomed to men approaching with life-sustaining meat, TV didn’t bother to run away as Kirk and Marty flanked it in the woods near the shack. Marty simply picked up TV like a chicken. That’s when TV proceeded to vomit all over, a turkey vulture’s natural defense mechanism! (7) Once that unpleasantness was over, the men gently placed a cloth bag over TV’s eyes to help keep it calm and delivered the bird to my veterinary clinic. The clinic staff, particularly veterinary assistant Ashley Stanton, were ecstatic to have such an usual patient to care for. Although a member of the stork family and not a raptor relative of hawks, eagles and owls as previously thought until 1994, TV’s large, sharp beak, overall wildness and tendency to vomit carrion encouraged us to keep our distance (8).

As veterinary professionals, we are permitted to house and stabilize injured wildlife temporarily before transporting them to a licensed facility for more care. While Kirk made plans to transport TV to Wildlife of Wisconsin (W.O.W.), we made TV as comfortable as possible in a large run. We placed non-stick mats on the floor, left a cat carrier on one end for nesting, offered water and some raw meat. Technically speaking, it is best not to feed wildlife on the chance the food offered could cause more harm than good, but TV had been safely eating this food for months. Lastly, just like we do for scared cats, we covered TV’s kennel with sheets to offer privacy and security. Surprisingly, TV seemed unfazed by the change in its circumstances! We even snuck a quick video of TV happily devouring the raw meat we had left it — this bird had most definitely become accustomed to people!

Turkey vulture eating raw meat.

The Latin name for turkey vulture is Cathartes aura, which means “cleansing breeze.” Cleansing breeze is not the impression I got when walking into the kennel room the next day. Although Ashley pointed out that turkey vultures fly around cleaning up decaying bodies, essentially acting as a breeze that cleanses, what do you think a creature that eats roadkill then barfs it up when threatened smells like? Not very breezy or clean!

Dr. Kim Everson and veterinary assistant Ashley Stanton found it easier to crate the turkey vulture than some cats!

As fond as we were of TV, its stench in an enclosed space and the mess it made in the kennel overnight prompted us to view the parting with no sweet sorrow. Anticipating a ruckus, Ashley prepared to catch TV with leather gloves and a towel while I got the cat carrier ready. Amazingly, however, TV simply walked into the carrier with gentle prodding! Kirk bundled the carrier under blankets in his pickup truck and met up in Manitowac with rehabilitator Susan They of Wildlife of Wisconsin.

It is such a relief to us all that TV is out of the elements and receiving quality care. As I write this blog, a brutal winter storm whips around the outside of my farmhouse causing drifts and temperatures that feel like -30 degrees Fahrenheit. 2022 really tested the mettle of this majestic turkey vulture. TV survived an unknown injury in the spring of the year (probably a hit-by-car while feeding on roadkill), lucked out to find a pool of people a bit goofy for animals, and learned over several months that humans are not a threat but a resource. I don’t know if TV is a female or male bird, or how far along it is in its potentially 15- to 25-year life span (9). I don’t know if TV’s accident severed its monogamous ties to its mate (10). But I know this bird is determined to live and I sure do admire its pluck!

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