Charlie Mayhew left a message on my phone asking me if I wanted to photograph Turkey Vultures. Charlie is a friend of mine. He lives in Newburg, Wisconsin. He found two Turkey Vulture babies in a granary/barn he was dismantling. He salvages old Wisconsin style barns. He disassembles them, hauls the wood away and stores it on his property with the hopes of selling it someday.
Charlie has a lot of old barns on his property. Charlie also has a lot of hope. His company is NOT a Fortune 500 company! He’s more interested in preservation than profit. Charlie is a little odd, but in a good way. His offer of Turkey Vultures was one I couldn’t refuse, so I called him back and said, ‘Sure!’
Turkey Vultures are those large, black birds with six-foot wingspans, soaring in circles two hundred feet over head. They’re searching for something dead to eat. Dead is the key word here. According to the Turkey Vulture Society (yes, they have a society) it is extremely rare for a Turkey Vulture to eat anything that has not died. Some just-barely-alives may be on the menu, but mainly the Turkey Vulture eats in a range from raw to ripe, but all recently departed. Gross maybe, but they help clean up the poor unfortunate chickens that don’t quite make it crossing the road.
Turkey Vultures have a keen sense of smell and find their food by the scent of death in the air. Note the huge nostrils in their beak. Their head is featherless to stay cleaner while eating carrion. They are not picky eaters, but will leave the scent sack behind when dining on a road-killed skunk.
As I drove to meet Charlie in Newburg, the radio weather predictions were for another 90-degree day. The granary and Turkey Vultures were in Kewaskum, another small city further to the west. Charlie wasn’t sure how old these two Turkey Vultures nestling were, but felt they might leave the granary soon, so there was a sense of urgency to get there.
There were three of us on this trip to Kewaskum to see the Turkey Vultures. Charlie was driving his car, his friend, Mark Schwengel, was in the passenger seat. I was driving behind them. Newburg and Kewaskum are fifteen miles apart. We were on Highway H when Charlie signaled right, swerved and stopped abruptly. I pull off behind him thinking he wanted to talk. Before I could stop Mark jumps out, runs around the back of their car to the middle of the road, grabs a road-killed raccoon by its front paw and slings it up onto the car roof. Landing between the extension ladders and the shovels, he gets back in the car and they drive off.
OK, that was gross! What was that all about?
We took the rural back roads to Kewaskum where we met Ted Meilahn, a retired land surveyor and longtime Kewaskum resident, now getting up in age…the man with the granary. Ted feared his granary was becoming a liability with the city folk and subdivisions now encircling him. Before the granary became an invitation for teenage beer parties or a fire he wanted it removed, but saved. That is how Charlie became involved. That is how Charlie discovered the Turkey Vultures. That is how I became involved and that is where the dead raccoon comes in too.
It was a short walk through the woods to the granary building. While I readied my camera gear, Mark grabbed the dead raccoon from the top of their car and flung it over an exposed granary beam in the hopes of luring the baby Turkey Vultures forward into the light.
I’m sure the baby vultures could see the raccoon hanging there and I’m just as sure they could smell it. I could smell it and it stunk…awfully! The flies hovering around it found it pleasant though in the humid July air.
Still the babies were reluctant to come forward to examine this offering. Maybe they knew they were too young to tear into the raccoon by themselves and were waiting for Mom and Dad Turkey Vulture to help with that task. Whichever, they stayed hidden and you probably wouldn’t want to see those pictures anyway!
Opening the door to the granary I carefully walked up the spongy steps. I didn’t want to fall through, nor did I want to startle whatever might be up there. Charlie told me they might stay to the back where it was darker. He also said if I got too close they would hiss at me. I thought to myself, I could take a little hissing for a good picture. But Charlie also said they’ve another tactic if hissing doesn’t work; they might try vomiting in your direction…yuck, vulture vomit! How much of that could I take?
When I reached the top step I saw one baby in the darkness…just barely an outline in black and white. Honestly, I was expecting baby birds of the vulture species. That’s not what I found! At one time in their lives I’m sure these two were little bundles of fluffy feathers, but now these babies were bigger than basketballs! If one of these babies vomited in my direction I’d know it!
I carefully picked my path through the thousands of bottle caps and assorted debris, until I got a good enough angle and a clear enough shot. When one hissed at me I stopped advancing immediately and waited for the vomit to come flying, but no vomit. I was relieved about that! Either his stomach was empty or I hadn’t reached his vomit triggering level yet. Whichever, I was pleased with my progress and decided to stay where I was for the time being. They huddled together for comfort or maybe it was a perceived strength in numbers, two against one.
I meant them no harm and all I wanted was their picture anyway…didn’t we bring them a present… honestly… ingrates. Eventually they seemed to recognize my ‘no harm’ approach and I only received one hissy warning. I became reluctantly tolerated as I walked around among them. They stopped flinching as multiple flashes filled the room with light for 1/1000 of a second each. I felt honored they allowed me close and I got all the pictures I could expect. As congenial as they eventually became, when I was finished shooting, I was glad to leave them alone.
WOW it stunk up there with that dead raccoon!
Mark Schwengel (left)
Charlie Mayhew (right)
Charlie Mayhew (right)
July 21, 2012