First up on the list, simply because they're due to arrive any day now, is the awesome and amazing Turkey Vulture.
Since I've already mentioned the "carrion thing", let's start there. Or, even more basically, let's start with this little fact: Turkey Vultures are not Raptors. A Raptor is defined by (anyone? anyone?) how it uses its feet to catch and kill its prey. Turkey Vultures (like most Vultures) don't have big strong feet like Raptors because they're not concerned with catching and killing prey. They're too smart for that (or so-say the resident Turkey Vultures...I think I'm plenty smart, and I killed a rat the other night). Instead, they find animals that have already bitten the dust, and eat them.
The way they find these dead animals is pretty cool. First of all, they have a "sense of smell". Not really having one of these myself, I'm not sure how to describe it, but I know that Turkey Vultures are pretty unique in their ability to smell ethyl mercaptan, a chemical emitted during decomposition, from such huge distances. Humans can smell ethyl mercaptan at 2.8 parts per billion. I haven't found the number, but Turkey Vultures can smell ethyl mercaptan from as much as two miles away--how many parts per billion is that?! As an interesting aside, Humans add ethyl mercaptan to natural gas so they can smell it if there's a leak, and leaks in gas pipelines are often discovered early by circling Vultures.
More about Turkey Vultures and carrion: they spend their days soaring around on their broad wings, hardly flapping, until they detect some ethyl mercaptan in the air (or they see other circling Vultures in the distance). Then they slowly fly down, land and feast. That's where the other adaptations come in: Turkey Vultures have featherless heads so that they stay clean while dipping their heads into body cavities; and in addition to helping them detect smells, their nostrils (called nares on birds) go clean through their face so nothing can get clogged in there.
Now, imagine you're a talonless bird standing on the ground around a carcass, trying to eat your lunch...except all the other scavengers want it too...and they're bigger than you. What will you do to defend yourself? Turkey Vultures have a simple (if gross) solution: they regurgitate partially-digested rotting meat. Humans claim that the smell is vile, and it works well at deterring predators.
And, finally, let's talk about how good they look. Seriously, Turkey Vultures are some of the handsomest birds, with their bright eyes and rosy skin. Don't get me wrong, my tastes lie more with large yellow eyes and a deep hoot, but there's no denying the dapper good looks of a Turkey Vulture.
A few more tidbits: Turkey Vultures migrate in enormous flocks called kettles; they roost communally at night, then catch the thermals to go soaring around in the morning; they mute (poop) down the backs of their bare, featherless legs and let the evaporation of the urates cool them off; their heads are greyish black for the first two years, then turn red when they become adults.
So, there are some cool facts for you. And as the Turkey Vultures make their ways north, slowly winging towards Fort Collins for the summer, I hope you look forward to their arrival more than usual. Not only are they the harbingers of spring, they're also perfectly evolved creatures here to clean up the icky rotting carcasses of the world. And they're interesting to boot.
Next bird profile: Swainson's Hawks! Check back next week.