The year was 1978. I was a senior at Iowa State University in Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. It was a crisp but sunny day in November and I was driving a carload of classmates to a wildlife management field trip at the Red Rock Wildlife Unit near Pella. As we rounded a curve in the highway, there in the middle of the road lay the lifeless forms of two turkey vultures.
I mention this because I had never seen a turkey vulture as roadkill before. My only prior experience with them had been likely the same as yours - watching these large birds soaring high in the sky making ever diminishing circles as they narrowed their search for the next meal. I picked up the birds and transported them to the field trip location where my professor (who informed me that he had the proper permits to be possessing them not me) would see that they went back to Ames to become study skins for future ornithology students.
Little did I know that over the course of the next 34 years since that day I would see maybe only one other road-killed turkey vulture.
Turkey Vulture mounted in realistic pose at the Grundy County Heritage Museum in Morrison.
I was thinking about that just the other day when watching some turkey vultures soaring overhead as I traveled down the road to an appointment. I was wondering to myself just why it was that they so rarely were hit by vehicles. When your role in the environment is to scavenge on the carcasses of dead animals, and when so much seemingly easy-pickins' can be found along and in the roadway, then it would only seem logical that many vultures would become roadkill themselves. So, these were the thoughts that were running through my mind.
Then, lo and behold, two days later I find myself once again on this same road. Several turkey vultures were feeding along the road edge when what rarely seems to happen finally happened. The birds saw the approaching truck ahead of me. As the birds lifted into the air, one unfortunate bird zigged when it should have zagged and was clipped by the truck.
Turning around, I found the bird too damaged to use as a museum mount. We have a specimen already mounted to give the appearance of a feeding vulture over a woodchuck carcass. I decided to keep the bird (I have that permit that my professor scolded me about many years ago). My plan will be to clean the skull and use it when talking to groups about birds.
Turkey vultures have very interesting skulls. They have hooks at the end of their beaks that aid in tearing the flesh from the prey. Other birds like hawks and owls have that, too. But turkey vultures have long, large nostrils. That makes them very different. They have those extra long nostrils because they smell.
Due to the nature of how and where they feed, their feathers physically smell most of the time. And their heads are almost featherless to eliminate much area for bacteria to grow when sticking their heads inside those carcasses. But in addition to that smell, they are one of the only birds in the bird world that have a sense of smell.
Anyway, back to the recent road-killed vulture that started this whole news column. When I returned to the office and related the story to everyone there, I told them that I had this eerie sensation as I stood beside the bird. From behind me, I suddenly realized that another of the vultures was passing near. Very near to me! Nick joked that maybe it was going to pick it up and carry it off. "Maybe that's why we don't see more turkey vultures dead along the road." An interesting hypothesis. I know my ornithology professor would have many reasons and much research disproving that notion. But it would make a great wives tale that vultures carry off their dead. And that's just how those things originate. If you ever hear that from someone you'll know where it started!