By Laura Mahan
Nearly every morning as I drive down Fairview Road to Biltmore Village, there is a committee—of vultures! “Committee” is the term for a group of vultures resting in a tree. This committee “meets” nearly every cold morning, huddled in large pines and oaks across the street from Oakley United Methodist Church.
As a naturalist I am always looking, observing, watching. Sometimes you notice something new and then realize as you look closer you keep seeing more. First, I noticed every so often a few vultures soaring over the I-240 intersection. Then I saw a few individuals perched on nearby cell towers, some with wings unfurled to catch the warmth of the morning sun. Several blocks later, I spotted the committee which is now a daily observation at the same location. One day I stopped and looked with binoculars. There were more than 50 Turkey Vultures there.
There are two species of vultures in North Carolina. The Turkey Vulture, the larger of the two, is the most common. Turkey Vultures are seen at every elevation in our mountains. The other is the Black Vulture. Although somewhat confusing to tell apart at first, it becomes easier after you study them with binoculars. Turkey Vultures have a distinctive rocking flight pattern and their wings are a light silvery color for the entire length. The smaller Black Vultures have a light-colored patch only at the tips of their wings when seen from below, and their tails are shorter. Black Vultures are more commonly seen at elevations below 3,000 feet. Turkey Vultures have a pinkish-red, featherless head, all the better for sinking its face into carcasses of dead animals. The featherless head is how the Turkey Vulture got its name due to its similarity to the Wild Turkey, which is no relation at all.
Vultures are birds of prey that feed on carrion. Imagine what our world would look like if there were no creatures that fed on dead things! They play a very important environmental role. Unlike other birds of prey, their talons are smaller and weaker since they are not adapted for killing live prey. Instead, vultures have powerful beaks for tearing apart dead animals. Turkey Vultures use keen eyesight and a powerful sense of smell to locate fresh dead prey.
Now, as a regular habit I look for the vultures of Fairview Road. I wonder, and it makes me want to know more about these curious birds! Did you know—a group of vultures feeding on the ground is known, appropriately, as a “wake”?
Laura Mahan is owner of The Compleat Naturalist in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com.