Mass Audubon says red-headed vultures are now a regular sight in Mass.

At first I thought it was a red-tailed hawk – but no, it looked different and didn’t seem to be hovering as gracefully. As the large blackish-brown bird perched on the roof of the shed, I grabbed my camera and got a pretty good shot through the sliding glass door. Once I enlarged it I realized it wasn’t a hawk but I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that it was the first time I had seen one in my wild kingdom.

I sent the photo to a couple of birding friends who identified the newcomer as a red-headed vulture. I had never heard of them before so of course I had to know whether to welcome them or try to talk them out of it.

I got my answer from the Cornell Ornithology Lab and the Audubon Society. According to these sources, red-headed vultures are not likely to be in your yard unless something is dead. It turns out that red-headed vultures eat carrion – the rotting flesh of dead animals.

Most birds are thought to have a very poor sense of smell, but the red-headed vulture is an exception, apparently able to find carrion by scent. Their keen sense of smell is what helps them locate dead carcasses. Hmm. I wondered what was going on in the garden that attracted this raptor. It can be any number of animals. I secretly hoped it was a big, stale groundhog.

According to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, red-headed vultures were rare until recent decades when they expanded their range north. It wasn’t until 1954 that the first confirmed breeding pair was seen in our state. Mass Audubon says, “Red-headed vultures are now a regular sight in Massachusetts.” Who knew! Certainly not me.

Further research revealed that New England now has two species of vultures: the turkey vulture, which has a bald red head and a pinkish beak, and the black vulture, which has a blackish gray head, and although it is still rare, it becomes more and more rare. increasingly common in New England. Nature really teaches me something new every day!

Red-headed vultures primarily eat mammals, but also snack on reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish, and even invertebrates. They prefer freshly dead animals, but often have to wait for their meal to soften to break through the skin. They are adept foragers, targeting the softer bits first and have even been known to overlook the scent glands of dead skunks. Luckily for them, the vultures seem to have excellent immune systems, happily feasting on carcasses without contracting botulism, anthrax, cholera or salmonella. Nevertheless, you would never want to eat one. Unlike their black vulture relatives, red-headed vultures almost never attack live prey; another plus.

The turkey vulture’s distinctive slow, staggering flight style likely helps the bird soar at low altitudes, where it is best able to use its nose to find carrion. On the ground, they move with unsightly leaps and are less agile than black vultures. Often, especially in the morning, they can be seen standing with their wings spread in the sun, presumably to warm up, cool down or dry off.

Outside the breeding season, red-headed vultures form roosts of several dozen to a hundred individuals. When turkey vultures run, pairs perform a “following flight” display where one bird leads the other through twisting, turning and flapping flights for about a minute, repeated for periods of up to three hours. Migratory herds can number in the thousands. Several red-headed vultures may congregate around a carcass, but usually only one feeds at a time, chasing the others and making them wait their turn. Despite their size, red-headed vultures are often hunted by smaller black vultures, crested caracaras, zone-tailed hawks, and other species.

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the number of red-headed vultures increased in North America from 1966 to 2014. Before 2014, these birds were threatened by the side effects of the pesticide DDT, but today they are among the big most common carnivorous birds. in North America. However, because they feed on rotten meat, they can fall victim to poisons or lead from dead animals. The main concern is lead shot that ends up in carcasses or piles of casings left behind by hunters. The animals eat the shot and end up being poisoned with lead. Other threats include trapping and killing due to mistaken fears that they spread disease. Far from it, vultures actually reduce the spread of disease. You could even call them nature’s cleanup team. They are definitely welcome to the savage realm whenever they feel a cleanup is needed.

Donna Lane is owner of Lane Interiors & Gardens, is a master gardener, past president of the Norwood Evening Garden Club and an active member of many other horticultural organizations. You can reach Donna at [email protected]

Sharon P. Juarez