2018-02-22 / Nature

Vultures Now Common in Rhode Island

By Charles Avenengo

With a wingspan measuring nearly 6 feet and a body length of 27 inches, turkey vultures soar and glide over the landscape using their keen sense of smell to locate carrion. (NTW file photos) With a wingspan measuring nearly 6 feet and a body length of 27 inches, turkey vultures soar and glide over the landscape using their keen sense of smell to locate carrion. (NTW file photos) It is hard to imagine that not long ago, a number of common birds, such as the Northern cardinal, Northern mockingbird, Carolina wren, tufted titmouse, red-bellied woodpecker and fish crow, were not present on Aquidneck Island. These birds represent a cluster of “southern species” that over the generations have expanded their way north into New England. Today, you can hardly walk a block in Newport without hearing the strident whistles of a male cardinal announcing his spring intentions from the rooftops.

Many people may also be surprised to learn that turkey and black vultures are among this cluster of recent arrivals to Rhode Island.

Unlike the familiar songbirds who have a small range that is limited to a few backyards and are generally easily observed, vultures aren’t frequently spotted as they inconspicuously soar overhead, covering many miles daily in their search for carrion.

While now firmly established in Rhode Island, their expansion north has been gradual. Early in the 20th century, the turkey vulture’s northern range was New Jersey, although stragglers occasionally ventured farther north. But by 1930, the first confirmed nesting in Southern New England was recorded in Connecticut. By the early 1980s, they had pushed into Maine and southern Canada.

Black vultures were slower to colonize in New England. Until the 1990s, Rhode Island had a total of 10 black vulture sightings, generally stragglers in the spring. Throughout the decade, black vulture sightings increased, and by 1999, nests were recorded in Massachusetts and Hopkinton, Rhode Island.

Currently, there are three primary vulture roosts in the area. One is the Hopkinton roost in the village of Ashaway, near the border of Connecticut, with a second in Woonsocket near the Massachusetts border. The third roost is on Division Road in Westport, about 10 miles east of Aquidneck Island.

Various theories abound as to why vultures have expanded north, including a warmer climate, the banning of the pesticide DDT and the expansion of the U.S. Interstate Highway system. With more highways come more roadkill, and thus more vultures.

It has been suggested that roadkill of white-tailed deer is a major food source for the scavengers. Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal that there are more than one million accidents annually involving vehicles and deer. That is a lot of potential food for the adaptable vultures.

Globally, there are 22 species of vultures, and all are scavengers. In North and South America there are seven species, including the turkey and black vultures that range from southern Canada to the southern tip of South America. In North America, there is also the California condor.

But the condor has not fared well. Condors became extinct in the wild in 1987 when the remaining wild population was captured for a breeding program. The largest North American land bird, their downfall was attributed to poaching, lead poisoning (eating dead animals containing lead shot), DDT poisoning, electric line collisions, habitat destruction and cattle ranchers who erroneously assumed that condors killed the cattle they were feeding on. The captive breeding program has enabled the reintroduction of condors to parts of mountainous California, Arizona and Utah.

While vultures soar gracefully, they are generally considered to be ugly, with disgusting habits. Nonetheless, they are of great value as scavengers, especially in tropical regions. With extremely corrosive stomach acids, they can safely digest putrid carrion infected with toxins and bacteria that would be deadly to other scavengers.

“The acid in a vulture’s digestive tract is so strong that botulism and cholera bacteria that would wipe out whole villages pass through a vulture like milk through a baby,” says Wayne Grady, author of “Vulture: Nature’s Ghastly Gourmet.” This helps control serious outbreaks of diseases like anthrax. In India, where there has been a decrease in the vulture population, there has been a rise in rabies.

So, look more closely the next time you see a large, dark bird flying overhead; it might not be a gull, hawk or crow. If it has a graceful yet wobbly flight, with wings cocked into a dihedral or “V,” and looks almost headless, it might be a vulture in search of its daily carcass.

Vulture Facts

.Turkey vultures do not have a vocal box. Instead they are limited to making grunts and hisses.

.They are also one of the few birds with a keen sense of smell. They rely on smell and excellent eyesight to locate their food.

.Vultures use wind thermal drafts to stay aloft for hours. With the seemingly effortless flight, they have been recorded at altitudes of 20,000 feet.

.In the wild, turkey vultures have a life span up to 20 years, while in captivity they have lived to 30 years.

.Vultures urinate on their legs. The uric acid helps eliminate bacteria accumulated from feeding on dead carcasses.

.In gas pipelines, companies add ethyl mercaptan, a key ingredient in the odor of carrion, to the otherwise odorless gas. This scent attracts turkey vultures and their presence helps locate natural gas leaks.

.A gathering of vultures is called committee, venue or a volt. In flight, a flock is called a kettle, and when they are feeding at a carcass, they are called a wake.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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