Willimantic, Now & Then
                 And sure enough, there is a large spruce tree in the hill section of Willimantic where many of these birds spend the night. One morning recently, Sarah and I went to watch as about two dozen turkey and black vultures woke up, warmed themselves and their wings in the morning sun, and then launched themselves into the sky. This process took place over an hour or two.
By Mark Svetz
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Look Alive, Willimantic
Our New Neighbors are Vultures
      Turkey vultures have a powerful symbolism. They fill an ecological niche few wish to contest. They scour the countryside for decaying flesh, they are not aggressive or territorial, and they embody my wildest fantasies of flight and freedom. And their numbers are increasing. They give me hope for the future.
    There have been many turkey vultures soaring above Willimantic in recent years. These birds have always been a favorite of mine. It was maybe 30 years ago that I wrote a story about turkey vultures in Connecticut. At that time, I had seen a few of them in the Natchaug Forest, and thought it was strange, since I had only seen them in the south before that time.
                            A few weeks ago, I found the web site of University of Connecticut Biologist,
Ecologist and Ornithologist, Chris Elphick. I decided to contact him and see if he had any thoughts about the presence of so many of these birds in Willimantic. I expect them in the countryside these days, but in Willimantic?
          The first thing Elphick had to say was that some of these birds, which I had assumed were turkey vultures, were actually black vultures. These birds are relative new comers to Connecticut and the northeast.
         Black vultures seem to let the turkey vultures find the food, then they often get to the carcass first. The turkey vultures are very passive in any confrontation. If the black
vulture shows up, the turkey vultures step aside. Black vultures are a little better at tearing the carcass apart, exposing the softer parts. It seems like a great co-operative system.
Mark Svetz and Sarah Winter step lively in Willimantic, looking  up as they walk!
      Jean deSmet, former Windham First Selectman, told me the Town has gone to some lengths to keep the birds off the roofs of town buildings. Town officials believe the birds have torn up the roofing and destroyed flashing.
            Elphick talks about the habits of these birds. Clearly it is a subject he enjoys. It turns out the vultures, both black and turkey Vultures, range up to 10 miles every day, soaring over the countryside, looking for the carcasses of dead animals, which is most of their diet.
             The two species of vulture are similar, and both of them were common in the American south and west, but not the northeast. This began to change in the last 30 to 50 years in the case of turkey vultures. Black vultures have been seen in Connecticut for only the last five to 10 years, according the Elphick.
          But why are they in Willimantic?
    Elphick speculates the reason these birds are in Willimantic has to do with their roosting habits. Both black and turkey vultures tend to roost communally, often together in the same tree. Elphick believes the main reason the birds are roosting in Willimantic is there are good roosting trees in the hill section.
                 Another difference between these two closely related birds is their coloration.
Adult turkey vultures have a red head without visible feathers. Black vultures have a naked head also, but it is grey.  
    In flight, the turkey vultures have a silvery white stripe, clearly visible from the ground, that runs along the bottom of each wing, lengthwise, from the body to the tip of the wing. This gives them the familiar two-toned wings when they soar above. Black
vultures’ wings are mostly black, except for the whitish tips, where the feathers spread in flight.
      Both turkey and black vultures migrate. Sometimes they migrate over great distances. It seems, however, the birds adjust their habits to microclimates. In
Willimantic, for example, the birds seem to stay all winter. This is my own observation, but I am not a biologist.
         Turkey vultures form long-term pair bonds. Black vultures form bonds for shorter periods. Both males and females stay with the eggs and young birds, taking turns looking for food. They usually lay two eggs. They pair up and find nesting places away from the communal roost early in the spring. The young adults stay together at the roosting tree.
        Turkey vultures and black vultures are both experiencing an increase in population throughout their range. Elphick thinks the extensive highway system is great for vultures. Road kill is a great source of food, and the highways are flight paths for the birds. They perform a valuable service in the world, cleaning up carcasses, slowing the spread of disease.  
                   “Turkey vultures, in particular, have a very keen sense of smell,” Elphick says.
“Biologists have done experiments where they put a dead chicken under the leaves, in a forest, under the tree cover, and turkey vultures find it.”
           Black vultures often live in an interesting partnership with the turkey vultures.
The turkey vultures smell food and circle over it for a while. This circling is a signal to others -- black vultures, turkey vultures, crows and other animals -- letting them know there is food in the area.
    Black vultures have a slightly shorter wingspan. Turkey vultures have a span of five to six feet, whereas black vultures’ wings are more like four or five feet from tip to tip. The black vultures are slightly heavier, being stouter in the body than turkey
        The birds sat in the tree for a while, then flew a short distance to one of two buildings, where they continued to soak up the sun. After a while, one by one, they launched themselves into the sky and headed out over the countryside.
               This difference in proportions between the two birds affects their flight. Turkey
vultures, being lighter, soar with a discernable “wobble.”  Black vultures are steadier in flight. Turkey vultures, on the other hand, soar with incredible efficiency. They stay aloft in the summer sky for hours with hardly a flap of their wings. They are a graceful sight, soaring over the country. Black vultures often flap their wings when changing altitude or direction.
          I hope the Town of Windham finds a way to minimize the damage these birds do to buildings. I also hope these birds stay in the area. I get a great deal of pleasure watching them and knowing they are cleaning up the countryside. That will work itself out, I’m sure.  
           In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy them while I can. I also find it oddly encouraging to see one creature that is thriving in this changing world. In fact, I find it very comforting to know the wheel’s still in spin. The world is not a place of stasis.
     “These birds are really pretty ungainly,” Elphick said. “If you look at the roosting tree, you’ll see there is a clear approach to the tree. This is what they need.”
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture