Kristen Lindquist: Meditations on an unlikely harbinger of spring

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 10:00am

There's a common bird I consider the true harbinger of spring here in coastal Maine. This year, I saw one in Belfast on February 2, the earliest date I've ever seen one in the Midcoast (and a full month earlier than I saw one last year). While the groundhog was foretelling six more weeks of winter, this bird was giving me hope that spring was perhaps more imminent.

Soaring gracefully overhead, this majestic bird showed off its nearly six-foot wingspan. A potential symbol for monogamy, the bird forms long-term pair bonds and is usually faithful to its mate until one of them dies. Most of us, however, would not feature this bird on a Valentine's Day card.

Can you guess what bird I'm talking about? From my description above, you've probably ruled out robin, woodcock, phoebe, and Red-winged Blackbird—three of which, at least, can similarly lay claim to being a reliable sign of spring's near-arrival. (Robins are actually here year-round, but that's a story for another day.)

But spring's arrival isn't all songbirds and pussy willows. The correct answer is... Turkey Vulture!

Fifty years ago, that wouldn't have been a viable response, because Turkey Vultures were never seen in Maine. Ornithologist Ralph Palmer's Birds of Maine from 1949 included them as rare vagrants. He listed "all records," about a dozen sightings since 1862, and added as an interesting point of clarification: "Early mention of 'Turkie Buzzard' by Josselyn (1672...) probably referred to young Bald Eagles. He said the bird was as big as a turkey, brown in color, and very good to eat."

The first vultures I ever saw were on a trip to Florida with my grandparents during a school vacation sometime around 1980. My first sight of large, dark birds circling together high overhead piqued my curiosity. My grandparents' friends, with whom we were staying, identified (and dismissed) them as "buzzards." But I had a new edition of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies, and quickly determined that there was no such thing as a buzzard. According to Peterson, I was seeing Turkey Vultures.

So the following summer, when I spotted several large dark birds circling overhead while knocking a ball around at the Camden Snow Bowl tennis courts, I knew what I was seeing. I couldn't quite believe my eyes, but large size, uniform dark color, and two-toned wings held in a shallow V pointed to just one thing: Turkey Vulture. In Maine.

Vultures were first confirmed nesting on nearby Bald Mountain right about that time. Now, almost 40 years later, vultures have spread throughout the state in great numbers. Most arrive as early spring migrants and hang out through October or so before migrating south for a few months.

The species' increasing expansion up into Maine and other northern states is generally attributed to the year-round abundance of road kill. Even with snow on the ground, an early-arriving vulture can get by on road kill and the occasional winter-starved deer carcass it finds in the woods. The first Turkey Vultures noted by Maine birders each spring are usually observed soaring over the southern end of I-95. Vultures are definite fans of the interstate highway system.

Despite the anxieties of pet owners, some of whom cock a nervous eye when a vulture flies over the yard, a Turkey Vulture will not make off with your Yorkie or your cat (unlike an eagle). It only eats dead meat. A vulture's bill is structured to tear open carrion, not kill things. It literally sniffs out its next meal—sometimes from miles away—with its incredible sense of smell. (Most birds don't even have a sense of smell.) Some vulture enthusiasts put out meat scraps on their roof in an effort to attract them. Makes for a different sort of bird feeder, but no doubt an interesting one as long as the neighbors don't complain about the smell. (Note to my neighbors: while I am fond of vultures, I promise I will never do this.)

Similar to a gawky Wild Turkey when standing around (hence its name), the vulture isn't the most attractive of yard visitors. The naked red head evolved so blood and guts wouldn't stick to head feathers when feeding in a carcass. Also, a vulture poops on its own legs, a repellent practice that serves as an anti-bacterial after the bird has been standing inside a dead animal. This is not a cute and cuddly bird. And, yeah, their very presence reminds us of death.

But in flight the Turkey Vulture is grace in motion, a master of the air riding the slightest current of warm air in wide, lazy circles. During migration, a kettle of dozens of vultures soaring together, moving higher and higher up a thermal in slow, interlacing spirals, can mesmerize.

So when I see that first vulture of the year soaring overhead, I'm not worrying about what dead thing it's got its eye on. I'm thinking that there's a bird that's found some hot air to ride on a cold day, and warmer weather can't be too far behind. I'm thinking, Beautiful. I'm thinking, Spring.

Kristen LindquistKristen Lindquist is an amateur naturalist and published poet who lives in her hometown of Camden.

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