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Turkey vultures have peculiar nesting habits, study finds

A turkey vulture spreads its wings at Hopland. (Photo: Robert Keiffer)
Omnipresent and homely, turkey vultures are a native California wildlife species that doesn't get a lot of research attention.

But UC Cooperative Extension advisor Greg Giusti has found a surprising level of interest from the public in his Northern California research project about turkey vultures' nesting preferences in oak woodland.

“Animals with cute fuzzy faces are far more attractive in our culture,” said Giusti, a wildland ecology expert. “Turkey vultures have been overlooked. Very little is known about their biology and environmental needs.”

Giusti worked with Robert Keiffer, superintendent of the 5,300-acre UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in Mendocino County, to better understand the nesting habits of the red-faced scavengers.

In the study area, the researchers counted 417 trees in all; seven of them had suitable nesting elements for turkey vultures. They found that the vultures at the Hopland facility select large hollow trees – either dead or alive, either shaded or in the sun – to lay eggs and rear their young. The tree species in the study included blue oak, interior live oak, Oregon white oak and valley oak.

Turkey vulture nestlings deep inside a hollow tree at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center.
The nesting trees were widely dispersed and ranged in diameter from 36 inches to 65 inches around at breast height. The nesting cavities are vertical tubes in the tree trunks that drop down as much as 13 feet from the entrance to the ground.

“This is very different from other large birds, like eagles and osprey, who build open cup nests high up in tall trees, which they may use for generations,” Giusti said.

After turkey vulture chicks hatch, the parents drop into the cavity five or six times a day to feed their young, Giusti said. How birds with a five-foot wingspan traverse a deep vertical tunnel is a mystery.

“They just shimmy up and down, I would imagine,” Giusti said. “We don't know how the young birds do it when they fledge. We've never witnessed the adult birds calling them out.”

Giusti said the scientists will continue to build on the turkey vulture nesting database they have started with results from this project. In the coming years, they hope to learn whether turkey vultures will re-use successful nesting sites and whether they may be found nesting in fallen logs or rock piles.

In the video clip below, a turkey vulture explores a possible nesting cavity at the UC Hopland REC.

An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Friday, January 9, 2015 at 8:25 AM

'Overlooked' turkey vultures the center of UCCE research

Turkey vultures are nature's clean up crew.
To some, turkey vultures are repugnant scavengers that feed on road kill. But to Greg Giusti, they are an intriguing, unexplored scientific topic, said an article in the Ukiah Daily Journal.

"They aren't warm and cuddly so people aren't drawn to them," Giusti said. "My academic curiosity drew me in."

Giusti has discovered that the birds nest in cavities of old, long-dead oak trees.

"We have seen the vultures jump inside the hollow, the middle of the tree, some 8 to 10 feet down," Giusti said. "Since there is not sufficient diameter for them to fly up from the inside, we surmise that they shimmy up to the top. When the hatchlings are about a month old and able to fly, almost full size, they, too, must shimmy up to get out."  

The UC Hopland Research and Extension Center hosts a public seminar, "Turkey Vultures in the Oaks: A Lovely Yet Maligned Bird," at 7 p.m. tonight in the Rod Shippey Hall, 4700 University Road, Hopland.

Posted on Monday, August 26, 2013 at 9:38 AM
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