'Nature's Morticians,' Turkey Vultures Increasingly Common on Cape Cod

Aug 9, 2017

Are there monsters in your barn? For property owners on the Outer Cape, the answer in recent years has increasingly been “yes.” I’m talking about categorically ugly, hissing, projectile vomiting monsters. But don’t call the Ghostbusters just yet, because these monsters have an important role to play in our ecosystem. They are Turkey Vultures, and they are nature’s morticians.

The other day we received a call at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary about a possible Bald Eagle trapped in an old shed near the sanctuary. Director Bob Prescott was soon on the scene, where he found just what he suspected: a Turkey Vulture nestling. Turkey Vultures, though eagle-sized and conspicuous when flying around, are shockingly secretive about where they nest. All of the nest records I know of on the Cape have been in old barns and other abandoned buildings, including the basement of an old National Park Service house in Wellfleet. So if you’ve inherited a sprawling old property with dilapidated outbuildings, you might want to poke around and see if you can catch a glimpse of these secretive giants. But you should be prepared for a vulture-style nest welcome, and it won’t be pleasant.

Turkey Vultures are famous among bird lovers for having a few pretty gross habits. While the whole “eating exclusively dead stuff” thing is the most obvious, another is projectile vomiting in defense of the nest. If you are lucky, or unlucky, enough to come across a vulture nest with chicks in residence, the babies will, at minimum, direct a rather unsettling hiss at you. If you get too close, the vomiting will be next. This somewhat antisocial practice apparently serves two purposes: driving away a potential predator, and calling the adults back to the nest via the smell. Unlike most birds, vultures have a keen sense of smell, which, of course, helps them to locate their deceased dinners. The adults will pick up on the awful smell of their offsprings’ offal and quickly return to defend the nest.

Turkey Vulture adults.
Credit budgora goo.gl/3L8s6N / goo.gl/cefU8

Turkey Vultures in Massachusetts were all but unheard of to 19th century ornithologists, with only a couple of sight records of this primarily southern and tropical species. The state wouldn’t get its first breeding record until 1954, with a steady increase ever since, as the species invaded the state from west to east. It’s just been in the last 20 years or less that we have gotten breeding Turkey Vultures on the Cape and Islands. The much less common Black Vulture seems to be following a similar pattern, having recently colonized the southwestern corner of the state, and will likely be pushing east in the coming years.

Ok, enough about vultures. It’s peak shorebirding time and I will get the shakes if I don’t at least mention them in this week’s report. August offers perhaps the best combination of big numbers and a good diversity of species when it comes to migratory shorebirds, so you’d do well to get yourself to a good patch of muddy, marshy flats in the coming weeks.

Late summer rarities such as the lovely, subtly plumaged work of art known as the Buff-breasted Sandpiper have already started turning up. If you can get to them, which isn’t easy, places like Nauset Marsh and the outer beaches and islands of Chatham tend to hold the best shorebird congregations, but any beach or marsh could hold avian treasure right now. And as you watch these little wind-up-toy sandpipers and other shorebirds feeding at water’s edge, think about the fact they many of these one-ounce-wonders are on their way from Northern Alaska to Brazil or even beyond. And also be grateful that they are not Turkey Vultures, which means you are relatively safe from bird vomit.