Oct 23, 2015

Many visitors reach the top of Pinnacle Mountain and notice large, dark birds soaring through the sky, lazily circling the summit of the mountain. These birds are labeled as eagles or hawks by many, but are usually none other than the turkey vulture.

The park is a perfect habitat for vultures as they prefer to roost and nest in high, secluded spots, such as the north side of Pinnacle Mountain and surrounding peaks. These huge scavengers circle the skies over the park all day in search of their favorite food, fresh carrion (also known as road kill). The turkey vulture’s keen sense of smell enables the bird to find a food source while hundreds of feet above the ground.

A namesake characteristic that is best noticed with binoculars is the bird’s red, bald head. The featherless head eliminates any ruffled feathers and prevents diseases from clinging to the bird while eating. This comes in handy as the vultures’ diet consists mainly of dead mammals. The turkey vulture is large, but lacks the fierce talons that hawks, eagles, and owls possess. The bird defends itself by projectile vomiting towards any threatening creatures. Much like a skunk’s spray, animals quickly learn to avoid these birds in order to prevent any smelly situations.

The turkey vulture's bald head prevents bacteria from sticking to the bird while eating its favorite food, carrion.
Credit South Dakota Turkey Vultures (Facebook)

How can you tell if the bird you are seeing is a vulture? Turkey vultures rock side to side while riding the thermal drafts through the skies, holding their wings in a slight “V” formation. 

The next time you visit Pinnacle Mountain State Park, look up and spot members of the park’s favorite clean-up crew.