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Missouri's Vultures

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

The sight of 23 turkey vultures perched on our barn roof with their 6-foot wings extended sure grabbed our attention the first time we saw them. No matter how much you know about vultures or how much you appreciate their role in nature, there will be a brief moment of alarm when you wonder if they know something you don't. Now, observing vultures throughout the day has become a welcome diversion to our daily chores.

With their small, bald, wrinkled, red heads, hunched shoulders, and large, dark bodies, vultures look like something from a grade "B" horror movie, especially when seen through the morning fog. In film and art, they are a universal symbol of dread and desolation.

Like Grim Reapers, the vultures sit in absolute silence. Lacking a syrinx, or voice box, they cannot sing. If close enough, you might overhear an occasional hiss or groan as they communicate with one another, but they will usually not allow you that close.

Often called "buzzards," New World vultures are actually related to storks and flamingoes. Of the seven species of New World vultures, three are native to the United States--the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), the black vulture (Coragyps atratus) and the endangered California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). Only the first two are found in Missouri.

The turkey vulture is a common summer resident across Missouri. Black vultures are mostly in the southernmost counties, but they have been known to migrate as far north as mid-Missouri in the summer. Both species are limited to the state's southernmost counties during the winter.

These two species are distinguished by the color of their heads and by the length of their tails, among other features. The adult turkey vulture's head is red, and the black vulture's head is black. The turkey vulture's tail extends well beyond the feet in flight, while the black vulture's feet extend nearly to the end of the tail. Both species are federally and state protected.

Our vultures' day begins between 7 and 8 a.m. Alighting on various fence posts and the roof of the barn, they squat on their weak legs, maintaining space between one another by subtle and not-so-subtle warnings.

Their featherless heads and legs, which keep them cool on hot summer days, leave them cold and damp from night air. Once on the barn roof, the vultures move about slowly, if at all. Finally one and then another spread

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