Spying a strange silhouette in the sky
March 23, 2017
My family was seated at the table for dinner a few nights ago when one of our sons looked out the dining room window and said, "What is THAT?"
Several large birds circled low in the sky right in front of our house. We watched in puzzled fascination as a few swooped up and landed in our neighbor's tree across the street.
"Are those crows?" our oldest son asked, but these birds were far too large to be crows.
"I want to go see what those are!" our youngest hollered as he leaped from his chair. His brother and I were right on his heels as he ran out the door.
Our focus was on the congregated birds, but when we looked north in the dusky and darkening sky, a dozen more inky silhouettes came sailing in toward the cluster of trees. I'm not going to lie; it was an eerie Alfred Hitchcock moment.
In his excitement, my son let out a whoop that startled the birds. The roosting ones took flight from the high tree branches as the others shifted their flight path to follow them. It was too dark to see exactly what they were, and we went back inside to marvel at this unexpected and strange event.
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The next afternoon, I relayed the peculiarity of the birds' visit to a friend during an afternoon walk. Not 30 seconds after my sharing, a dark spread of wings appeared in the distant sky. One bird turned to six, then 12, and still more circled in above our heads, coasting the thermal currents. Just as the night before, the birds landed high in a nearby tree.
I had my phone with me and took a few pictures, though they still were too far away to make out exactly what they were. Thanks to technology, I looked up "birds in Nevada" on the spot and it seems that we were most likely looking at a group of immature turkey vultures.
Further research revealed that adult turkey vultures have a distinctive, bald, red head, while juveniles' heads have a more pinkish-black appearance. Their relatively light weight (just 2-4 pounds) and 6-foot wingspan affords the birds the ability to soar rather than flap their wings in flight. They rely on their keen sense of smell to find fresh carrion upon which to feed; the vulture's hooked beak and chicken-like feet help it tear into the carcasses they find. They prefer to nest far away from humans, though they are comfortable feeding near them. Watch out, though; if a turkey vulture feels threatened, it will regurgitate on whatever is harassing it.
Their roosts range from dozens to hundreds of birds, and a group of perching vultures is called a wake because they look like they're in mourning with their heads down. A turkey vulture's average lifespan is 20 years, and the species is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It is illegal to possess, take or kill turkey vultures in the United States, and violation of these protections can result in steep fines and imprisonment.
As scavengers, turkey vultures are valuable contributors to the ecosystem; they rid the environment of carrion that, if left untouched, would be a breeding ground for bacteria and disease.
Seeing these fascinating creatures was a good reminder to look up every once in awhile. You never know what you'll find in our vast Nevada skies.
Amy Roby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.