viruses as well as bacteria. This protects the vultures and reduces the spread of disease from the carcasses they consume. After digesting a meal, a vulture may excrete the waste onto its legs, cooling and decontaminating them and its talons at the same time. It's an odd sort of tidiness.
Vultures also occasionally vigorously vomit out their stomach contents. This strategy, which does not endear them to human caretakers, may aid vultures by lightening their weight for a quick getaway.
Vultures have also been characterized as "gentle, inquisitive and very intelligent," by at least one caretaker of captive vultures. They spend only a portion of their time looking for, eating, digesting and regurgitating food. Caretakers report that vultures often prefer the company of certain staff, sometimes following them from room to room. They also report that the vultures like to untie people's shoes and enjoy some toys, particularly hollow objects into which they can stick their heads.
In midsummer, the vultures that live in my valley start returning by 6 to 7 p.m. They arrive singly or in small groups and light on one of the prominent dead trees across the creek, and in the canopies of the trees to either side. They spend the next couple of hours preening. Sometimes, for no apparent reason, they take flight again to sail around the valley a few times before returning to the roost.
The number of vultures at the roost varies each evening, suggesting that some may remain where they have been hunting during the day. By midsummer, there seems to be fewer of them. Perhaps some pairs have dispersed to raise their young.
Vultures do not build nests in trees. A female lays one to three eggs in a log, stump, cave entrance or, occasionally, in an old barn or abandoned house. The pair take turns sitting on the eggs and, once the chicks have hatched, share the task of feeding the young. By late August, having completed their nesting activity, the pair rejoins the others at a roost.
One study of black vultures suggests that mates and closely related individuals use the same roost site on the same night. The researchers speculated that there might be significant advantages to membership in such associations, particularly in contests over food. It's also possible the communal roosts benefit vultures by allowing them to follow others to known food sources.
Our turkey vultures usually leave their roost around 8 p.m. They drop out of the trees one by one, coast over the creek or occasionally over the field to a group of tall sycamores about 1,000 feet upstream. They disappear into the thick canopy of the trees and settle in for the evening.
Observing this local roost of vultures and their activities in the valley have become a part of the rich tapestry that is our life on the creek. Their departure from the valley early in the day signals that the morning is getting away from us. Their movement to their roost just before twilight tells us it is time to put away our gardening tools and head for the house. We miss their lazy circling in our skies during the winter, and we eagerly look for their arrival every spring.
ENJOY VULTURE VENTURE
Each winter one of the largest, if not the largest, winter roosting site in Missouri is open for viewing by the public during Vulture Venture at the Department of Conservation's Shepherd of the Hills Conservation Center at Table Rock Lake. You can sometimes see up to 800 black and turkey vultures soaring above the nearby bluffs over the lake or sitting in their roost, which covers nearly an acre. Naturalists are on hand to answer questions. A program on vultures is offered every hour, and you can meet a live vulture "nose to beak."
Vulture Venture 2004 will take place Feb. 28, from noon to 6 p.m. The Shepherd of the Hills Conservation Center is located about 6 miles south of Branson on Highway 165, at Table Rock Dam. For information, call (417) 334-4865.