Nature did not endow the turkey vulture with a generous complement of charismatic qualities. On the ground, with its featherless red head, funereal black raiment, and awkward hopping gait, the adult turkey vulture wins no prizes for grace or beauty. Its call, when it makes any sound at all, is like a cross between a braying donkey and an angry goose. When feeling threatened, the turkey vulture’s defense is to vomit. And, of course, there’s that whole scavenging carrion thing.
Yet vultures are nature’s cleanup crew, perfectly equipped for the vital niche they fill in the cycle of life and ever vigilant for when next they can be of service. “I think they get a bad rap,” says Dr. Robert Sheehy, a professor of biology at Radford University in Radford.
Sheehy has maintained a “vulture cafeteria” to study the birds’ group feeding behaviors.
Sheehy has been interested in turkey vultures since he helped rehabilitate one (affectionately nicknamed “Puke” because “every time we walked into the room he would throw up,” says Sheehy) many years ago. When Sheehy arrived to teach at Radford, he found there was a large vulture roost in town, and so, while turkey vultures have not been his main area of research focus, he has made “a recreational study” of the local population part of his work.