Urban Wilds is written by Lela S. Lela lives in Petworth. She previously wrote about bird migration.
I’m writing this post from Florida City, just outside the Everglades, where vultures have developed a taste for windshield rubber. Like New Zealand’s infamous kea, migratory black vultures stopping over near the park are known for their attacks on rubber and plastic parts of cars, ripping out window seals and peeling windshield wipers. It’s gotten so bad that the park offers visitors tarps to shield their car from attacks. We don’t know why the vultures do it especially since they don’t really seem to eat the stuff, just shred it. Maybe just for fun, or perhaps the delicious flavor of sun-warmed vinyl.
DC has plenty of these scavengers – both black vultures and turkey vultures – although in our area, at least, they haven’t turned to gnawing cars yet. Vultures don’t have syrinxes, the bird equivalent of vocal cords, so they don’t sing and limit their vocalizations to hisses and grunts. Both species in our area soar on thermals looking and smelling for lunch. (Black vultures have much poorer senses of smell, and often watch for turkey vultures to identify carrion so they can sail in and steal it. Vultures thrive around cities as well as in the country. In fact, the urban heat island effect generates strong, consistent thermal columns for them to ride, which other soaring birds like red-tailed hawks also benefit from. To tell our two species of vulture apart, look at the way a given bird is flying. Turkey vultures wobble in flight, where black vultures have a stronger, more forceful flight pattern punctuated by several wing beats. Black vultures have tails that look short for the birds’ size, and the underside of their wings appear almost totally black; turkey vultures’ wings are marked by a long stripe of paler feathers toward the outer edge. They’re found all over the DC region, throughout the year.