The big black birds you see flying over the park are Turkey Vultures! (Cathartes aura ) Turkey vultures are common in the park and range from Canada in the north all the way down to South America. Interestingly, The Cherokee Nation gave them the honorary title “Peace Eagle” based on their resemblance to an eagle from a distance and the fact that they do not (and cannot) kill prey.
These large, dark birds are masters of effortless flight. When you watch them fly you will notice it is not very often that they will flap their wings. Instead they soar for hours, holding their wings steady to catch the thermals (rising columns of air) off the bluffs. Just a subtle twist of a wing and they will change direction. Seen from below, the vulture is a gray to black bird, with silver primary feathers along the trailing edges of its wings.
Turkey vultures are one of only two “raptors” that have a sense of smell, which they use to locate their food, carrion (dead animals). Although they are often thought of as the “garbage collectors” or “recyclers” of the animal kingdom. However they not only feed on carrion but will also hunt small animals.
A interesting (or gross depending on your point of view) fact is that they use regurgitation as a defense mechanism and for digestion. They will “toss their cookies” to lower their body weight and fly away when predators approach.
Like other buzzard-type birds, turkey vultures have a bald head and neck. This helps to keep bacteria or parasites from the carrion latch on to their feathers.
Turkey vultures are not currently endangered or threatened.
The oldest known Turkey vulture lived almost 17 years.
In late September and early October Turkey Vultures often gather at Devil’s Lake State Park in preparation to move south for the winter. At times (see photo) the sky over the lake can be filled with them.