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South Williamsport, PA
United States

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Our “Ugliest” Winged Creature

Maybe I should be a little more considerate and rephrase that story title and say our “not so attractive” winged creature. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m referring to the common and frequently sighted turkey vulture. The vulture’s featherless red or pinkish head and neck are anything but cute, and their eating habits only add

Maybe I should be a little more considerate and rephrase that story title and say our “not so attractive” winged creature. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m referring to the common and frequently sighted turkey vulture. The vulture’s featherless red or pinkish head and neck are anything but cute, and their eating habits only add to their less than desirable traits — they prefer dining on dead animals. We often spot one or more vultures gathered over dead critters along a road. The featherless head and neck actually make digging into the entrails of a dead animal much more efficient; now that’s a pleasant sight to ponder. Ugly as they are and as repulsive as their eating habits are, they do serve a valuable purpose in that they help to dispose of decaying, dead animals that often litter our highways.

My guess is people probably pay little attention to a turkey vulture until they actually see one or several gathered around a dead animal, but in reality, they are often quite visible almost any day of the week, but you have to look up. Turkey vultures are a common sight soaring high overhead, sometimes in good numbers. On a recent fishing outing, I counted a dozen or more vultures riding the wind currents over the lake.

Both male and female vultures are covered with blackish-brown feathers, and they have a wingspan of up to six feet, similar in size to that of an eagle. In fact, in flight, sometimes vultures are mistaken for immature eagles, which do not exhibit the white head and tail feathers. Vultures, like eagles, are efficient at soaring with their long, broad wings acting much like kites. When vultures catch a rising current of air, they can maintain or even increase their altitude without even flapping their wings. Flight patterns can be adjusted by simply changing the tilt of the V-shaped wing pattern, and they can soar for hours without ever flapping their wings. As a result of not using their wings like most other birds, vultures have relatively small breast muscles. If you have ever watched vultures on the ground, you soon realize that their rather clumsy movements are nothing like their graceful flight patterns.

Don’t expect to find any big vulture nests in trees since they make little or no nest but rather deposit their eggs on the ground, in the gravel on cliff ledges, or in rotted sawdust in logs and stumps. If reading about their eating habits has not already turned you off, add this one to the list; the young birds in the nest eat carrion regurgitated to them by their parents.

While many may migrate in late February and March, it is not unusual to see vultures almost year-round throughout the state. I have not read much about their numbers, but it seems that I am seeing more in recent years than in the past, and I suspect their numbers are quite stable and may be increasing. By the way, on occasion, you may even spot a black vulture. The black vulture is smaller with a wingspan of barely five feet; it has a short tail, and unlike the turkey vulture, the black vulture has a black head. In flight, the black vulture is less efficient at soaring due to the smaller wing pattern and therefore has more frequent wing beats. The black vulture is more common in the southern part of the state but occasionally shows up in our area.

I think for my next bird watching challenge, I’ll try to distinguish between a turkey vulture and a black vulture while watching them in flight 500 feet up in the air.

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