The Everyday Hunter – Watching for the Wrong Bird

Turkey vultures are not one of nature’s prettiest creatures, but they’re well designed for what they do
Turkey vultures are not one of nature’s prettiest creatures, but they’re well designed for what they do

Are you looking for signs of spring? Punxsutawney Phil’s forecast disappoints us repeatedly. Crocus flowers sticking their heads up are a delight to the eyes, but they get buried by snow every year, and sometimes lots of it. And those of us who look for robins to herald the coming of spring are looking for the wrong bird.

So what is a better harbinger of spring? Turkey vultures, that’s what. Turkey vultures fly south, like many birds do, and if they’re not back yet it’s a pretty good sign spring hasn’t sprung.

Yes, robins are the wrong bird to watch for. In fact, I once saw a robin on January 1, and that bird sure wasn’t a sign of spring. Many people don’t realize that a few robins actually spend winters here. When you see a robin in the dead of winter, it’s either one of the few homebodies that didn’t fly south, or it’s a migrant from farther north that stopped here on its southbound sojourn. While the ground is covered with snow they subsist on leftover berries and the few bugs and worms they are lucky enough to find.

On the other hand, when you see a turkey vulture spring is guaranteed. The habits of turkey vultures mean they can’t stick around here like the occasional robin, and they can’t stop here for the winter like a few robins from north of the border. Vultures must vamoose before the freeze-up and they can’t come back until things thaw out.

Turkey vulture in flight

Why not? Because they can’t eat frozen food. Vultures eat carrion. They clean up roadkill, dead animals around farms, victims of predators, unrecovered game animals, and whatever other wildlife is dead for whatever reason.

I’ve seen vultures circling woodchucks I’d just shot, and I’ve known them to totally dismember and entirely devour freshly killed kin of Punxsutawney Phil within a few hours, but they don’t demand fresh meat. They seem to prefer dead carcasses that have been rotting for weeks. They’re nature’s sanitary engineers. They’ll eat the stinkiest meat around.

Vultures are uniquely suited for this clean-up job. Unlike bald eagles, vultures really are bald. If their heads were feathered, they’d soak up putrid rot when they reach inside the body cavities of the critters they’re having for dinner. As you might expect, turkey vultures are exposed to lots of bacteria, but their urine is strong enough to kill bacteria when they spray it on their feet. I can hear Mrs. Vulture saying to Mr. Vulture when he comes home from the job, “Don’t come in until you’ve sprayed your feet!”

Vultures don’t get much love, but they do deserve our appreciation for the work they do. They just can’t do that job when their meals are still in the freezer.

For the surest sign of spring, look to the sky for big birds with a wingspan up to six feet. You can tell them apart from eagles (which spend winter near open water) by the fact that they hold their wings in a shallow “V” when soaring high in circles looking for lunch. Soaring eagles hold their more muscular wings straight out. So, “V” is for vulture, not eagle.

Vultures have excellent long-range vision and giant nostrils on their sniffers through which they collect molecules of scent from far off decaying flesh. As long a dead animal hasn’t yet frozen, or it has thawed, it’s on their menu.

If you haven’t seen a turkey vulture yet, be patient. They’re working their way here. And when you see one, you’ll know winter has released its icy grip.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting , he’s thinking about hunting ,
talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.