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Thursday, January 21, 2010

NAOMI WEST: Vulture flocking

Here is the video we took of the congregating vultures a few weeks ago. (Don't quit it early -- the numbers keep growing!)

Because nothing in my research addressed this behavior (I could only find info. on vultures congregating when roosting), I contacted the Turkey Vulture Society for information on this behavior, and below are two responses I received:

This from Maria del Mar Contaldi:

Turkey vultures soar taking advantage of the thermal updrafts, and when this birds congregate in roosts, sometimes of hundreds of birds, they may all "ride" the thermals together. In particular, certain populations of this species migrate in autumn, the western populations go to Northern South America, they are counted by the million at the watchsite in Veracruz, Mexico. The Eastern populations don't leave North America but they do undertake short distance migrations, and they do so in flocks, big groups. This may be what you are looking at, yet it should prove useful if you could write down exact dates of arrival and departure and see if you notice any wingtags, some study groups band the birds to follow their movements, and study these patterns. There is a lot of information being gathered about it, perhaps your next search should be about the migratory movements, you will get a lot of data about it in the internet.

This from Brandon Breen:

It is generally believed that the vultures do this to both play and socialize. Humans aren't the only organisms to play and just enjoy certain behaviors, and it is possible that the vultures enjoy flying and will do so in the evenings after the foraging 'work' is completed. Also, these flights are not energetically expensive when the air movement conditions are right. That is to say, if the birds are able to soar (not flap) then they're not using much energy so the cost to this behavior is minimal.

There is a lot that is not known about vulture behavior and social structure. Nevertheless, vultures and condors that perform these evening flights (and both vultures and condors regularly make flights like these) have been seen to perform courtship displays (such as follow flights whereby two birds fly in tight formation), so there may well be some pair bonding that is occuring during these flights, as other forms of bonding between siblings, 'friends', etc.
So, basically, it seems to provide some social bonding opportunities, it is not very costly behavior energetically speaking, and they may just enjoy it. Also, it could help them, especially young birds, master flight.


Retrieverman said...

The turkey vultures are gone for the winter in my part of the country. I have not seen them play, but I have seen the congregate in huge flocks.

They tend to use the same roosts.

Many decades ago a Methodist minister put up displays of three large iron crosses all over the country. He happened to be from West Virginia, and they are everywhere here. http://www.christiancrosses.org/History.htm

I know of a particular display that overlooks a very straight stretch of road, something you don't see very often in West Virginia, even on the "limited access" highways. There are open fields and pasture in all directions for maybe a mile or two.

And these crosses on top of the this hill are the perfect place for turkey vultures to sit around.

It is very strange to see scores of vultures sitting on these crosses. They are always there when the vultures return in the spring. I think this is because the local highway department used to dump road-killed deer in a heap not far from the hill.

The department of highways no longer collects roadkill. So the vultures are coming to the crosses on the hillside out of custom.

Retrieverman said...

You see these crosses everywhere in West Virginia: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/59/186074593_d634fac7a2.jpg?v=0

Apparently they are made of Douglas Fir, but I've always assumed they were made of iron. They never seem to rot or fall down.

Geordie-dave said...

It was because I was down below making a big pot of tattie hash with stotty cake on the side!

Andrew D. Gable said...

A vulture flock moved through our town a few years ago, and in an inestimably creepy way took up residence for a few weeks near the old folks' home and then after that for a few weeks in the cemetery. All the cemetery trees denuded for the winter with vultures perched in them was a creepy sight.

Syd said...

Naomi, thank you for sharing this with us. It is so beautiful and relaxing, an aerial ballet. The music you chose to accompany the film was perfect for it.

PS. What is the title of the music, as I did not recognise it.

Naomi said...

Thanks, Syd. The song is "Long, Long Journey" which is on Enya's Amarantine album. I had been listening to it in my car on the way home a couple weeks AFTER we filmed this video, and the vultures were flocking again. I stood outside my car watching the vultures until the song was over, and found it spellbinding. That's why I chose it for the video.