In the fall, turkey vultures swirl in groups called "kettles," as if they were stirring cauldrons above mountain passes. Their group name and their habit of eating carrion make them creepy Halloween-style birds.
Many turkey vultures migrate from the western United States to Mexico in the fall. The Turkey Vulture Migration Project provides precise tracking of the individual paths of migrating turkey vultures who have been tagged. Many of these pathways dip through the Central Valley of California, between the Sierra Nevada mountains and coastal ranges.
The central California town of Tehachapi is a favored stop along the migration path. Here a range of mountains separates the agricultural area around Bakersfield to the west from the Mojave Desert to the east.
Turkey vultures may often rest in the same nighttime roosting spots each year, much like travelers hitting old-standby hotels along a trip. In Tehachapi, I was fortunate to see a kettle of turkey vultures slowly descending to some trees in a park in the middle of town. At first, there seemed to be only a few turkey vultures, and I thought they did not represent a migrating group. But then I would see a speck slowly get bigger, and I realized it was yet another turkey vulture descending. More and more specks descended until I counted at least 25 birds.
Tehachapi, California is one of the best places to witness the turkey vulture migration in September and October. However, even here in the Bay Area of Northern California, I saw a small group of turkey vultures in an apparent migration heading southwest off the slopes of our local mountain, Mount Diablo.
Our area also features many year-round turkey vulture residents, so many that it leads me to the somewhat disturbing conclusion that there must be death around all of us to support them.
On the bright side, their eggs have lovely lavender spots, and they locate their nests within holes in trees or inside buildings, so that they don't have to work too much to build straw structures.
Turkey vultures prefer a habitat with open country with tree-filled edges, where they can find roosting and nesting sites.
Although turkey vultures have a sad association with death, one bright spot is that their Latin name, Cathartes aura, means "breezy cleaner." They soar on breezes with their wings rocking shakily from side to side, and they perform a necessary function within our ecosystems.
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