For the Birds: A vulture eats; a hawk watches

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.

Photo by Chris Bosak A turkey vulture eats a squirrel on the side of a road in Brookfield, Conn, fall 2018.
Photo by Chris Bosak
A turkey vulture eats a squirrel on the side of a road in Brookfield, Conn, fall 2018.

I turned the corner at the four-way stop and noticed a big, dark clump on the left-hand side of the road.

It’s either a bag or a turkey I thought, as I approached the object in question. Of those two choices, obviously I was hoping for a turkey.

It turned out I was wrong on both counts, but I was close with the turkey guess. It was a turkey vulture and it was standing on and picking apart a dead squirrel. Not knowing exactly what it was when I turned the corner, I drove past the vulture on the way to my destination. As I passed the bird, however, it didn’t even look up from its meal, so I figured it was comfortable enough that I could circle around and grab a photo or two.

I didn’t want to back up because, first of all, it’s dangerous; and second, from my experience, wildlife usually flee from cars backing up. I think the animal in question feels threatened about the object coming back toward it. Also, cars tend to make more noise in reverse.

The road I was on continues in a circular route that winds up back at the four-corner intersection. So I kept on going and hoped the bird would still be there when I got back. In my rearview mirror, I noticed another big, dark bird in a branch perched above the vulture. I assumed, of course, it was another vulture and told myself I would check it out when I circled back.

I got back to the intersection in a few minutes and, sure enough, the vulture was still on the side of the road picking at the squirrel. I pulled off to the right-hand side of the road, put down the driver’s-side window, and snapped a few photos of the impressive, opportunistic bird.

I started to pull away when I remembered the bird perched above the action. I pulled forward a few more feet so I could get a look at it from the back window and noticed that the bird was still there. It was not, however, a vulture, but rather a very anxious-looking red-tailed hawk.

Clearly the hawk wished it were the one perched on the squirrel enjoying the meal, but the size of the vulture prevented it from taking measures in that direction.

I didn’t see how the scene unfolded prior to my arrival. I don’t know if the hawk had caught and killed the squirrel and the vulture somehow wrestled it away, or if the squirrel had been sitting there for a while and the two birds happened upon it at approximately the same time.

My guess is that the squirrel was already dead and the hawk found it first and started eating it. Then the vulture came around and its menacing 6-foot wingspan chased the hawk off the squirrel and onto a perch safely above the mammoth bird.

Not wanting to interfere with whatever was going to happen next, I pulled ahead and continued to my original destination. I’m inclined to think that, given the size of the vulture, the hawk eventually gave up and flew off to fine food elsewhere.

Looking back, I was surprised that there was only one vulture. I typically see vultures in groups — sometimes small, sometimes big. It’s not often that I see them alone.

The other thing that surprised me is that I actually had my camera with me. I have been lax about keeping it with me lately. There have been many times over the years that I have stumbled upon interesting wildlife scenes and did not have my camera with me. You’d think I would have learned my lesson and always had the camera with me, but that is often not the case. This time, thankfully, it was a lesson learned in a positive way.

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