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Vultures all the way down

As harbingers of spring go, the carrion-eating birds with the naked, ruddy heads are as reliable — if not as photogenic — as crocuses.

A turkey vulture in flight.Bryan Pfeiffer

From where I now sit south of the Mason-Dixon line, I have breaking news for my fellow New Englanders: the vultures are coming.

I mean that literally. Actual vultures — turkey vultures — are flying north as rightful and imperfect harbingers of spring.

From my home in Vermont, I embarked on a road trip to the southeastern United States to meet the spring in all its manifestations: warmth, wildflowers, songbirds, baseball.

By the time I reached Philadelphia, the red maples were blooming along I-95. At a roadside rest area in North Carolina, the season’s first butterflies were on the wing. And throughout my route, it has been turkey vultures all the way down. They drift at low altitude, holding their wings in a slight dihedral and teetering gently from side to side, their naked, ruddy heads seeking out the dead.

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For at least 50 years turkey vultures have been expanding their range and numbers into New England, other portions of the northern United States, and southern Canada. We’re not entirely sure why, but more roads and more vehicles, and therefore more roadkill, might explain part of it.

Turkey vultures possess an acute sense of smell, which allows them to find carrion otherwise hidden in the woods. And a bare head plunged into a carcass stays cleaner than a feathered one.Bryan Pfeiffer

Whatever the case, I’m OK with more vultures, which have some unusual and wonderful adaptations compared with other birds. One is an acute sense of smell, which allows them to find carrion otherwise hidden in the woods. We suspect vulture pairs remain monogamous and mate for life, unlike lots of other birds. And vultures reportedly defend themselves from predators by vomiting at will (not that any of us would care to test this).

One morning, while birdwatching in North Carolina, I ended up chatting for nearly an hour with an 80-year-old marine veteran who had seen a lot of the world. He told me that the ospreys would return here any day to nest (they did), and I pointed out an orange-crowned warbler feeding nearby in a yaupon holly, which I kid you not goes by the scientific name Ilex vomitoria. We discussed military corruption and the horrors of warfare. And we talked about kids and families, getting old, and marriages that didn’t last.

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When it was time for breakfast, we smiled and bid each other well. As I walked a park road back toward my campsite, he passed me with a wave and a toot from his beater, a blue-and-white Chevy pickup sporting a Trump-Pence bumper sticker on its back windshield.

Had my own contrary politics come up during our conversation, I suspect it wouldn’t have mattered much. Not that I’m naive about the coarseness of our culture and public discourse or the dismal fate of nature. It might be easy for me on this trip to see the turkey vultures circling over a nation and planet in decline.

But the red maples bloom here in red states as well. Spring is coming. And it’s hard to argue politics with anyone when warblers and ospreys are on the wing. Or even vultures.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a semi-retired field biologist and lecturer at the University of Vermont. He writes Chasing Nature on Substack and lives in Montpelier.