Turkey vulture (Photos by Don Reimer)
Turkey vulture (Photos by Don Reimer)
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With the nesting season now under way, volunteers for the Maine Bird Atlas project are active for the second year. The aim of this five-year citizen-based study is to map the distribution and abundance of all birds nesting in Maine and gain some understanding of wintering populations. The 2018 atlas season tallied 223 species statewide, with 197 species confirmed as Maine breeders.

Certain species are more easily detected than others, since birds with bulky oversized nests like ospreys and eagles are readily apparent. But while locating actual nests is not necessary to confirm breeding activity, nest sites often point toward confirmed breeding status.

As shy and reclusive nesters, turkey vultures are at the other end of the discovery spectrum. Last year I scoured several promising locales where daily vulture activity was high. No dice; my efforts fell flat. In a given area there will be relatively few sites suitable for a vulture nest. In fact, vulture “nests” aren’t quite what we might imagine. Typically they’re located on the ground in darkened sites (inside a cave, hollow log, tree stump or masses of dense vegetation). Soil and leaf litter are pushed aside to accommodate the one- to three-egg clutch. Other possible sites include abandoned buildings, where the birds simply nest on bare floor surfaces. Both sexes share in the incubation duties for five to six weeks.

Weighing about 4 pounds and with a wingspan of about 6 feet, the turkey vulture is the most abundant and most widely distributed avian scavenger in the New World. The red featherless head and characteristic teetering flight distinguish vultures from other large soaring birds. Its genus name, Cathartes, means “cleanser,” since their diet consists of carcasses from woods and roadways. Lacking a syrinx (the song-producing organ of songbirds), vultures make hissing sounds when threatened or disturbed.

Despite vultures’ sizeable body structure, their feet are weak, with blunt talons. They are relatively timid and will avoid conflicts with eagles and other scavengers such as the smaller but more aggressive black vulture. At a carcass they feed in an organized manner, waiting their turn in a behavior known as “queuing.”

Thanks to information from observant local property owners, I learned of two active vulture nests this spring. Each nest was unique in its location, but shared some common traits. The first nest site was in a deserted cottage, where a vulture pair had produced two whitish eggs on the floor of the dwelling. The spotted brown eggs were positioned beneath a bench overhang with a few random oak leaves scattered around them. The adult birds conveniently enter and exit the cottage through a gaping roof hole. Being gregarious by nature, several other non-breeding vultures reportedly perch in nearby spruces adjacent to the building. Large communal groupings of vultures are called a “wake.”

The second nest was situated within a ledged rock formation in an isolated wooded setting. The grotto nest site was well hidden from general view, but also open enough for the returning vultures to land and enter the crevasse. Once again, two eggs lay atop a blanket of faded oak leaves, slightly shaded and protected from the elements by a protruding rock shelf. According to the property owner, this particular nest site has been utilized for a couple decades.

Readers might want to Google the Maine Bird Atlas website to learn more about this worthwhile project and ways to participate. And, by the way, if vultures are nested somewhere in your vicinity, I’m always interested in gathering additional nesting data.