Our R&R time this week has been spent watching birds other than our resident poultry. Our dogs hate crows so when they chased them out of the pasture next door I figured their job was done and they would return. Not so, for they kept barking and running back in the woods necessitating an in-depth investigation.
Overhead a kettle of turkey vultures was circling, and the smell of decay was in the air. Not too far off the road, a deer carcass was swelling in the sunshine with clouds of flies buzzing around it. This meant the dogs were banished to the house while I tried to see how close I could get to the vultures.
They are incredibly ugly birds unless they are in flight where they soar for hours on the thermals holding their wings in a distinctive shallow V shape. Along the Lake Michigan beach they will play for hours, never seeming to need to stop for food. Next door they soared, at least 14 in their group, while one or two went to work on the deer. I got close enough to see several on the fence with more in nearby trees and several in the air.
A single vulture can eat an estimated 111 pounds of carrion a year, a job the Indians revered the bird for. The Cherokee called them the Peace Eagle as they kill nothing but do a necessary clean up job. Their digestive system can reportedly kill even anthrax bacteria, performing an important job of cleaning pathogens up out of our environment helping to prevent the spread of disease. They urinate on their legs, to help them cool off and again to kill bacteria they may have picked up standing around on the carcasses they eat. Their heads are bald, possibly to help prevent carrying disease around in feathers. Given a choice, the turkey vulture or buzzard prefers meat from herbivores avoiding the carcasses of other meat eaters such as dogs. If there is a shortage of meat they will eat pumpkins, grass, leaves, rotten fruit and seeds but given the human tendency to drive in big cars that kill a variety of smaller creatures, there is usually plenty for them to eat.
They are a peaceful non-aggressive bird but if you manage to get close to them you will most likely regret it as they protect themselves by vomiting, which given their meal of rotten meat will not smell any better than the carcass it came from. They enjoy a bath and sunbathing, spreading their wings wide as they face the sun. Come fall, birds tagged in Wisconsin were tracked to South America as they migrate by the thousands south through Central America forming a “river of raptors”, a magnificent spectacle.
Exhausted from stalking the much-maligned vulture, I welcomed the chance to stretch out in bed, windows open thanks to the cool night air. We can hear the ducks and geese all night, talking along with an occasional rooster crow but when they start yelling you know something is wrong. It could be an opossum or a raccoon wandering through that tend to leave the geese alone and ducks also, if there are geese in with them.
Or it could be an owl, most likely the barred owl searching for dinner. We have had them kill a turkey but ducks are usually the largest bird they take. It seemed like all night I heard the owls, eight loud hoots at a time right outside our window with another calling not far away. There are only two kinds of owls who hoot, the barred and the great horned owl. Most common is the barred owl and that was who we found in the live trap in the morning.
Owls are good right? They eat voles and mice, lots of rabbits, weasels, large bugs, pigeons and other animals we would rather not share our gardens and poultry with. But this owl had enjoyed duck dinner, the flock having seven ducks fewer by the time we figured out who was the culprit. Turkey vultures may seem gross and ugly yet they are protected by law from hunting. Not so for the owl who is far more common that you would suspect, some estimates being there is one every mile.
Some cultures hold the owl to be a symbol of wisdom. Owls and their eggs are used in medicines, to cure alcoholism, to improve your eyesight or to make your hair grow. The Barred Owl, also know as the Hoot Owl, Eight Hooter, Rain Owl, Wood Owl and Striped Owl could foretell death or the approach of a witch or even tell you how to plan your travel depending on its hoots. This particular owl, not wise enough to stay away from our bird pens, was moved to a new home because its hoots predicted death for ducks.