beacon stories

Turkey Vultures of West Palm

Above the bustle of the city, West Palm Beach is home to the most primitive of natives. Soaring high above our heads, the silent fliers share our very own concrete ecosystem.

Being identified as turkey vultures these birds can easily be seen soaring high above the Esperante and Philips Point office buildings, just a couple blocks from campus. Their presence has caused awe and wonder among locals as to why such a large number of these birds have accumulated in the area.

The turkey vulture, cathartes aura, has a wing span of up to six feet in length and can weigh up to 6.5 pounds as an adult. They are native to southern areas of the United States, as well as Central and South America, and have earned the title, “biggest bird in North America.” Since these birds are so large, any flapping of their wings would be extremely laborious; therefore, turkey vultures have the ability to sour for hours at very high altitudes without expending any energy. In order to keep stability in flight, they tend to teeter back and forth while flying with their wings slightly dihedral, meaning in a v-shape. Because of their size and weight, these birds are unable to lift themselves off the ground; therefore, according to Ricardo Zambrano, a wildlife biologist with fish and wildlife, “the birds need a very high place so they can get the lift they need.”

There are plenty of buildings in West Palm Beach so why Phillips Point and Esperante? According to both wildlife biologist Zambrano, and Dr. Maurice Thomas, Palm Beach Atlantics coordinator of the biology department, the birds need thermals to keep them aloft. Thermals occur when warm and cool air mixes, this mixture then results in an upward spiral of air that these birds use to gain altitude. It just so happens that the heat radiating from these two buildings mixes perfectly with the cool ocean breeze from the intercoastal. This also explains why there is a larger population of turkey vultures around Phillips Point than there are around Esperante. The Esperante building is white and therefore radiates less heat than Phillips Point.

“Phillips point may be one of the tallest buildings in West Palm Beach”, argued Dr. Thomas. “So they tend to gravitate towards it.”

It seems that the height and good thermal conditions of both these buildings are two of the greatest reason these turkey vultures are attracted here.

Amazingly, turkey vultures tend to ride a series of thermals to great exponential heights, and then soar downward reaching speeds up to 60 miles per hour until they catch another current. This style of flight enables the birds to glide literally across continents without a single flap of their wings.

Turkey vultures are not only attracted to this area due to thermal conditions. As these birds feed on carrion (dead animals including fish) they also enjoy shoreline vegetation. They are also easily adaptable to humans.

Being social birds, turkey vultures tend to roost in large numbers. This explains the concentrated number of the birds around these two buildings.

Turkey vultures are federally protected under the migratory bird sanctuary ordinance but this isn’t the only reason these birds are tolerated in such high numbers. Turkey vultures are clean. By defecating on their own legs, strong acid in their urine cleanses them from harmful bacteria they may have picked up from dead carcasses. Water in their urine also helps keep them cool in the heat of south Florida.

These birds are thriving off of our high buildings, ideal food sources, and optimal thermals. And in return they keep our beaches and streets clean of rotting road kill.

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