My first encounter with vultures was when I saw them in a movie years back. They were circling over dead Calvary in the hot desert of the Southwest. That impressed me. Not long afterwards, I sighted some circling vultures as a youngster while my friend Frankie and I were hiking the foothills of mountains near our home in Raton.
We anxiously climbed out of an arroyo we were exploring and began a rapid pursuit in the direction of the circling vultures. Our intent was to see what they were about to eat. But, as we walked and walked in the direction of those birds, they seemed to be circling farther away from us. That adventure reminded me of searching for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Finally, we gave up and continued our adventurous pursuits in the foothills elsewhere.
But, my interest in vultures continued so I bicycled to the Raton Public Library to find out more about them. Unfortunately, the encyclopedia was my only resource. It stated that the bird I encountered was a Turkey Vulture, a bird described as an ugly, soaring bird with dark feathers and naked head which ate dead animals. With that kind of a description, I realized why people dislike vultures. Fortunately, modern references include more pleasant descriptions of the bird.
Recent information has interesting facts. Turkey Vultures are summer visitors to New Mexico, and they winter many miles south of the state. Vultures are most commonly seen when they arrive in the spring and depart in the fall, sometimes in very large numbers. For example, 500 vultures were observed at Carlsbad Caverns National Monument Sept. 23, 1993.
Vultures are easily identified by their darkish color and extended wide, long conspicuous wings with whitish feathers underneath. Their wings are slightly tilted upwards rather than being situated straight out from the body. And, unlike other soaring birds, vultures tilter or rock in flight. Nesting sites are rarely observed because they are well hidden in coyote dens, caves, rocky ledges, hollows of trees, among other sites. The adults are seen in their communal roosts on bare branches during the nesting season and especially before and after migration.
Most striking to Portales residents was when a group of vultures chose the bare branches of trees in the Portales Cemetery to roost prior to their fall migration. That was when I received the most telephone calls asking about those unusual members of the bird world.
Desert Biologist Tony Gennaro of Portales writes a monthly column on creatures of the Southwest. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org