The Return of the Turkey Vultures

Much has been made about the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano on March 19, St. Joseph’s Day. But here in northernmost coastal California, the big event is the arrival of the first turkey vultures, heralding the warmer weather we’ve longed for. I rejoice in their return, calling out to them: “Welcome back, Big Birds, I am so happy to see you again!”

Years ago, before I had a proper compost container, I disposed of fruit and vegetable parings above ground at the edge of the forest where I live. It was late fall and the weather was still warm allowing updrafts for the birds to reach the higher winds. The jet streams were beginning to flow from the north/northwest and by riding this upper air current, the birds travel great distances to reach their winter homes and food sources.

On one such day, in the late afternoon, I glanced out the window to see a large group of turkey vultures of all sizes, from elderly grandparents to little ones– there must have been about ten in total. They tromped over the compost pile, playfully tossing wilted cabbage leaves and onion skins up into the air, strolling around within the boundary of the compost pile, visiting with and grooming one another. They must have been out there an hour before they made their quiet departure which I missed, as they probably wished.

Some people are afraid of turkey vultures. They are not birds of prey, they are scavengers. Their head and necks are featherless because it enables them to access the interior of the carcasses they find in a neat and tidy manner. They are able to pick a carcass clean in just a short amount of time, usually within a day, leaving only the bones, and those are usually left totally intact as they were when the animal laid down and died. They will never seek to feed if an animal is not assuredly dead.

Here in California we are in the fourth year of a drought, water is scarce for deer and other animals and some of them will not survive. Turkey vultures clean up the carcasses in a timely manner and eliminate the chance of spreading disease. In addition, there is a change in the offshore coastal current. The fish food source of seals prefer the colder waters farther from shore.  Many younger seals are unable to travel the extra distance to feed and are showing signs of malnutrition. Some die and wash up on local beaches. The turkey vultures are at the beach also, keeping things tidied up.

I’ve had a busy spring this year and haven’t been able to keep an eye on the sky as much as I like, but I noted the first appearance of the turkey vultures on my calendar: March 2– Two TV’s in am, 10 TV’s at 5:35 pm. I was able to use the jet stream archive menu from San Francisco State University’s Department of Earth and Climate Sciences to see how the winds had factored in and enabled their return on March 2, possibly from southern California. On that day, an offshore system was rotating in the waters off Baja California allowing the birds to ride the circulation northward. However, the cold evening winds from the northwest jet stream seemed to limit their northern migration– one or two attempted to venture a little to the northeast, but seemed to decide against it and joined the rest of the kettle drifting gently inland to the east and southeast. I knew then that winter was not quite over yet.  Nevertheless, the first contingent had arrived and today, two months later, they’ve been joined by their friends and family and can be found in abundant numbers here on the coast.


“Turkey Vultures”

“A Little About Me”, September 10, 2014,

2 thoughts on “The Return of the Turkey Vultures

  1. Thank you, EmilyAnn, I love the “world out of doors” (one definition for “outdoors”–Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 5th ed., 1945) Looking forward to learning how to operate a digital camera soon.


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