Yesterday, I wandered around the yard, getting the first of the summer blackberries.  I had shoes on, so I went down to the Chicken Vulture Coop and looked in to see what was happening this year.

I saw nothing on the one side (the sky was overcast), but I heard… rustling.

I opened the other door (there are two small rooms, side by side), and I saw two beautiful (well, to me, they are) three-month-old vulture juveniles, one of whom immediately threw up. I closed the door and held my breath (vulture vomit smells truly ungodly, being rancid meat that has been partially digested in two entirely separate vulture stomachs; it’s a very effective defense mechanism).

Yay! Two new vultures! Their odds are good now for making it to adulthood, as they’re too big to be eaten by snakes (nothing else will touch them), and they’re not going to die of cold.  They have moved to the room with a shelf, which means they’re practicing sleeping sitting up (as they will have to do when they join the roost), and we should see them out and about in the next month.  After that, they’ll continue to live with our adult pair throughout the summer, then the adults will start “encouraging” them to leave (by hissing and mobbing them until they don’t want to stay any more). By fall, they should be joining the roost, and the adults will no longer live at our place, but will join the juveniles at the roost.  Which could be a dead tree, a tall structure (like a cell-phone tower), or an abandoned building, but is usually a dead tree.

The adults will come back and stake their claim on the coop by the end of winter, as it is a very good nesting place, even though it is slowly falling apart.  We sometimes get vultures in the old barn, but it depends on the weather – the north wall of the barn has pretty much rotted away, and the roof is starting to go.  Even with those faults, the vultures like it (they usually lay their eggs on the ground, by deadfall or in hollow trees; an old building is often better protection for the eggs), but our main two won’t always allow other vultures to nest nearby.  Too many nests in one area can mean a much more limited food supply, and ours jealously guard their good fortune.

Here’s a picture from last year, of the adults and the one juvenile (from left: male, female, juvenile), sitting on top of the old chimney:

chimney vulture crop 2017Picture by Laura Mellin, 2017

Vultures, btw, have no distinguishing sex characteristics. Even wildlife experts can only tell one of two ways – either they catch the vultures mating, or they perform a necropsy on a dead vulture.  I happen to know ours apart because the male is more chill in my presence*, but when they’re together (which is most of the time; they mate for life, with no side-hustle), the male’s head is more brown/grey/black, and the female’s head is more grey/grey/black. The previous female was more distinctive, as she had lost three toes on her left foot in a fight (we think with a raccoon) a few years before she died.

We have no idea of the sex of the juveniles. Ever.

*Black vultures have no vocal cords; they communicate with grunts and hisses, but most of their communication with each other, other vultures, and (sometimes) me, is done through elegantly complex body language. When they are relaxed, they will communicate by gentle head movements and various grooming gestures on themselves. When they are upset, they will groom each other, very gently.  When they are anxious, they will sometimes “yawn” (opening their mouth wide), and if they feel threatened, they will stretch their wings out to make themselves look more imposing (with a six-foot wing-span, they are).

But that is a massively simplified explanation for very complex sets of movements. I can make grooming movements at them to show I’m not a threat, and I definitely get a sense of back-and-forth, but I can’t understand much beyond relaxed/scared/angry. When the male and I “talk”, he will wait for me to make my movements before he makes his.  The female once gave me the hairy eyeball and hopped in between us – I think I was inadvertently flirting with a vulture.

That’s a resume-builder, that one.  Yup.

They do like being together; if they were humans, they’d probably be considered co-dependent, but I like that they’re so affectionate.  There’s probably a lesson in there somewhere.

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