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Look Up! It's Turkey Vulture Time In South Florida

Shawn Carey
Courtesy of Keith Bildstein

We may not get the brilliant reds and yellows of leaves changing to signal a switch of season in South Florida, but there is, without question, a definite visual cue that autumn has arrived in the lowest of the lower 48.

All you have to do is look up.

In the air, circling and gliding, dipping and soaring, hopping on a thermal current for a rollercoaster ride, are the turkey vultures.

Maybe you’ll see one or two before Oct. 15 rolls around. And after that, the ultimate clean-up crew will have said “so long” to places as far north as New York and Pennsylvania, and taken their carcass-cruising talents to South Beach.

“They are nature’s sanitation engineers,” says Keith Bildstein. He’s the director of conservation research at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Orwigsburg, Penn. It’s located on what’s known as the Appalachian flyway. As many as 20,000 raptors pass by in early fall on their way south for the winter.

And the turkey vultures aren’t just our seasonal flighty friends. By sanitation engineers, Bildstein really means they take out the trash. Roadkill, remains and basically things that make you go "ewww" make a mighty tasty meal between now and the arrival of spring.

So as long as you are living and breathing, the chances of you seeing a turkey vulture up close and personal are slim. In fact, our favorite description of Cathartes aura, their scientific name, comes from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

“Turkey Vultures are accustomed to living near humans and snacking off of our leavings. You will often see them in farm fields or hanging out next to the road. However, they are not likely to be in your backyard unless something has died or else you have a very large backyard.”