The first time I saw a certain majestic bird in the Adirondacks twenty-five years ago, it was soaring along a ridge at my eye level. I was lying down, resting and enjoying the rustling of pine needles in the big trees overhead. When I figured out what it wasa dark bird with a huge wingspan and a red head--I was just a little nervous as everyone knows what they like to eat, but when I sat up they knew I was still alive.
Black vultures, however, are just now making their way to southern New York as the climate warms. They have black heads (immature turkey vultures do too), and they cannot soar as well, so they need hotter weather to create the necessary thermals. TVs, the nickname given turkey vultures by birders, separate their wingtip (primary) feathers to make each feather act like a wing. This reduces the air turbulence and lowers the stalling speed when they are floating down on rising air currents. TVs stall at 2 mph, black vultures at 2.6 (who knew?). Their only other relative in this country is the condor, as they are related to storks rather than hawks.
Recently there was an entertaining harpsichord concert at TPCC given by a young woman. She was truckingliterallya harpsichord around the area, playing free solo concerts while recovering from a serious operation, to get back in playing condition. Afterwards people were invited up to see the beautifully decorated instrument, which plucks the strings rather than hammering them as a piano does. In telling us about how they are constructed, she mentioned that traditionalists use crow and raven feather shafts for the plectrums (or plectra for the classically trained).
Whenever we can, we watch the TVs (we dont have a television), up to a dozen, come soaring in to a nighttime roost in a big dead pine near us. One morning I also got out early enough to see them before they left for their day jobsfinding dead carcasses and cleaning them up for us. (Their stomach acids are so powerful they even destroy many nasty toxins.) The birds were spreading their wings to the sun, which they do to warm themselves to flight temperature, not necessarily to dry their feathers as anhingas do. (This should have been obvious to me one day when they had them spread and it was drizzling, though I just thought maybe they were not too bright. But the sun must have come through the clouds enough to warm them more than the drizzle cooled them.) This particular morning they did a minimum of preening, though some of them needed it to judge by the white splotches on their feathers. I did see a couple of fluffy white feathers drift down, and I resolved to see if I could find them on the ground. There was some musical chairs going on because of the white splotching problem (you figure it out). Ones lower on the totem pole would circle around and land higher up.
I heard a story the other day about a woman who saw a TV close up from a convertible and was aghast that God had created such a hideous bird. (When they drove back that way and one flew towards the car she was almost afraid it had heard her remark!). But the point of the bare skin is to avoid the messy feathers that would result from poking around in rotting carcasses. Grooming head feathers would not be easy even if they were inclined to do it.
So, back to the harpsichord. As we had seen some shed vulture feathers with shafts, not just downy ones, under the roosting tree, I asked the musician if they might be good too. She said, They are very valuable, the best kind of feather! Sure enough, the internet had a treatise by a harpsichord maker who buys vulture feathers from Germany (where it must be legal to sell them, unlike here). He explains why they are better than plastic for plectrums and how birds that are carnivorous have stronger shafts than herbivores. The upper parts of the long primary feathers we found had vanes only half the width of the bottom parts which were protected by other feathers. Soaring most of the day every day really wears them out and they also migrate to South America.
A certain thin man who walks by them to work early every morning considers these ugly birds almost friends, though he does shake his fist at them as he goes by, saying, Not yet, not yet!