I took part in the recent Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. I enjoyed a cold but sunny Saturday morning looking for birds with Chris Soto and Brookie and Jean Potter.
The first Christmas Bird Counts were conducted on Christmas Day (Dec. 25) in 1900. The annual census arose from a proposal made by famed ornithologist Frank M. Chapman. According to Audubon.org, these yearly counts, conducted throughout the country, have provided a wealth of data over the past century.
Observations made due to CBCs have helped Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, the data provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.
The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, otherwise known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, has a long history of participation in the annual Christmas Bird Count. In fact, the club has conducted two different counts — one for Elizabethton and another for Roan Mountain — for decades. The 2022 CBC marked 80 unbroken years in conducting a CBC for Elizabethton. Not even the ongoing pandemic deterred members for carrying out Christmas Bird Counts in 2020 and 2021.The club has also conducted 69 Roan Mountain CBCs, but inclement weather on the unpredictable Roan has forced cancellation of this annual count on a few occasions.
Christmas Bird Counts are challenging. Birds are more scarce. Weather conditions can sometimes present a challenge. On this year’s count, my group struggled to come up with common species such as killdeer and Eastern phoebe, although we did eventually manage to find these target birds.
It was far from certain whether we would find the region’s two native vultures: turkey vulture and black vulture. We added turkey vultures to the list when we encountered some soaring individuals. We later found our black vultures in a delightfully random fashion. While driving through the Gap Creek community we passed an old barn and spied two black vultures roosting in the barn loft. Surprised, we circled back, documented the vultures in photographs and remarked on finding the birds just inside a building.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Like many other species of birds, vultures have learned to co-exist near humans much in the same fashion as Canada geese, Eastern bluebirds, American robins and mallards. Like these birds, vultures are highly adaptive creatures. Unlike some types of wildlife that shy away from human contact, vultures and some other birds have adapted to the human environment – perhaps a bit too well. Vulture behavior can be destructive. In recent years, some of these destructive tendencies have become quite infamous among birders. This new behavior apparently first surfaced among vultures wintering in south Florida.
They have been known to tear window and roof caulking, vent seals, shingles, rubber seals on car windshields, windshield wipers and other soft, rubbery materials. In addition, their excrement is acidic and may damage painted surfaces and landscaping. The birds also regurgitate a smelly, acidic vomit. Unfortunately, vultures apparently pass on these bad habits to others of their kind and such aberrant behavior is now being seen outside of the Sunshine State.
Some communities in the region have also had to deal with large roosting flocks of vultures. A few years back as many as 100 vultures had been documented in Abingdon, Virginia. This number may rise and fall, depending on conditions.
On some of my recent walks around downtown Erwin, I have frequently observed black vultures and turkey vulture soaring lazily overhead on both sunny and overcast days.
Vultures are part of the web of life, which connects them and their fellow creatures to our own lives. Turkey vultures are larger than black vultures, weighing about four to five pounds, with a wingspan of six feet. The turkey vulture’s most distinctive feature is its bright red, featherless head. In flight, a turkey vulture often appears to “wobble” and, from underneath, all of the flight feathers are light colored.
On the other hand, black vultures are smaller, weighing less than four pounds, with a wingspan of five feet or less. The black vulture’s head is grey and featherless, but larger in proportion than the turkey vultures. Viewed in flight, only the outer flight feathers of the black vulture are white.
Although smaller in size, black vultures are feisty and aggressive birds. They often outcompete turkey vultures at carcasses. They will also only reluctantly abandon a feeding site at a carcass. My family almost learned this the hard way many years ago during a trip to South Carolina when my father almost ran his car into a flock of black vultures feeding on a road-killed deer. I warned him that the vultures might not get out of the way, and he slowed the car’s speed. The vultures moved back from the edge of the road as our car traveled past them. Looking back, I noticed they immediately hopped back onto the carcass after we had passed. If we had sped past at full speed, one of the bird’s could easily have panicked and flown into our path. A four-pound bird can do a lot of damage if it hits the windshield of a car traveling at 40 to 50 miles per hour. Trust me! You don’t want to put this to the test.
Perhaps that’s the moral of the story. Give vultures a wide berth and, in theory, they will do the same for you. Let’s face it. Vultures aren’t going to be cute and cuddly faces for ecological awareness. A polar bear or penguin, vultures simply are not. They still have a role to play, and we should be grateful they were created for just that purpose.