On hot, humid summer days, consider the ingenuity of the Turkey Vulture. When overly hot, this bird will often defecate on its own legs. The water in its waste (feces and urine are eliminated simultaneously through a bird’s cloaca) evaporates and cools the blood vessels in the Turkey Vulture’s unfeathered legs and feet, which results in cooling the entire bird.
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On some of the hot days we’ve had recently, my thoughts have turned to Turkey Vultures and their ingenious way of staying cool. They defecate on their legs and the subsequent evaporation cools the birds while strong acids kill bacteria.
Right on time, the second week of March, Turkey Vultures are back in central VT/NH. Recognizing them is not too hard – they’re bigger than any other raptor in New England except for eagles. At a distance Turkey Vultures look all black, but a closer look reveals that the undersides of the flight feathers, along the trailing edge and wing tips, are lighter in color than the rest of the bird, giving the wing a two-toned appearance. (Black Vulture wings are solid black with silvery tips.) The feathers at the wing tips are often separated, which some birders refer to as ‘fingers.’ In addition, vultures hold their wings slightly raised, forming a ‘V’ or dihedral shape in the sky when viewed head-on. Turkey Vultures soar in circles as they ride the thermals, using their sense of smell to locate tasty carcasses on the ground.