Doc Buzzard is hangin' around...
January 5, 2012 9:20 PM   Subscribe

What the heck are all these birds of prey doing?

For three days in a row, now, I have walked out of my apartment about 45 min. before sundown and seen not one, not two, but hundreds of birds of prey streaming across the sky in an orderly and determined fashion, in a period of perhaps 20 minutes. Where are they going and why?

A bit of background: I live in middle/northern TN, on the side of one of the higher hills in a relatively flat area, overlooking a river. Across the river is a quarry, which has delved into the side of some bluffs for quite a long way. Because of the confluence of river, hill, and cliffs, it's not unusual to see some raptors hanging around, riding the thermals. That's not what's going on.

A few more details that hopefully will help the ornithologists among you:
- One day before the first migration, I saw several hundred turkey vultures gathered on the cliffs above the quarry. They were breaking off and wheeling around in small groups but were not moving en masse as they are now.
- The birds are mixed groups, mostly turkey buzzards but I definitely saw the white wings and bellies of several kestrels or red-tailed hawks as well.
- They are at a fairly uniform altitude, ranging from 10+ ft. above the treetops to perhaps 75 ft. This is clearly not optimal cruising height because they are having to flap their wings more frequently than I have previously observed.
- They are moving from the quarry over the hill and towards the flatlands, coming from the northeast and headed for the southwest.
- I have followed them for some time, but have not seen them lower altitude, circle or land anywhere, which leads me to believe they are not after a recent piece of roadkill or similar.
- They are gone by the time the sun goes down.
- This is the first time I've ever seen it, and I've lived in this area for 6 years (it is possible I've missed it previously, though, as this is my first year in this exact spot.)
- And, here's the kicker: turkey vultures, according to the Internet at least, do not generally migrate this far south.

So: it's probably not a migration, it's definitely not mating season, and it's not a fresh kill as far as I can tell. It is, however, one of the coolest things I've ever seen, and I'd love to know what's going on!
posted by WidgetAlley to Pets & Animals (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Um, quick clarification: by "do not generally migrate this far south," I meant we get buzzards all year, not that they don't come down here at all. We've got so many vultures we have to make up superstitions about how many you see at once. :D
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:22 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

They're just hanging around for the winter and are headed to their evening roost when you see them. I was just back in Virginia and saw this behavior most evenings -- a mixed flock of turkey vultures and black vultures gathering in thermals and streaming towards their evening roosting spots. Somewhere near you is their roosting spot.

It's unlikely that there are kestrels in the mix. They're a LOT smaller and have very different flight behavior. Red-tails could be in there with the vultures.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:49 PM on January 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding the night roost. Also, black vultures frequently hang out in large groups during the day as well. They don't have turkey vultures' amazing sense of smell, so gangs of them follow turkey vultures around and try to bully the turkeys off of whatever rotting carcasses they've found. (In California, condors do the same thing.) So just before dark they all come traipsing back to their designated 'roost trees' in these huge mixed flocks. The Redtails you see are probably just be sharing the same favorable wind patterns that the vultures are traveling on.
posted by Kibby at 9:58 PM on January 5, 2012

I see a similar activity here in Ann Arbor. In the winter, in the eventing, the crows seem to flock to the downtown area (home of lots of large university buildings with heating systems that send out warm air), the next morning they head out to forage or do whatever crows do when they aren't sleeping.

But, that said, crows tend to flock, so this makes sense for the turkey vultures, I'm surprised the other hawks are in the group.

[side note] I live two miles from Hell, we make a point of welcoming the Vultures back each spring, so, when you're done with them, point them back at us and give them a little kick...
posted by HuronBob at 3:13 AM on January 6, 2012

Vultures do migrate at least this far during December and January, forming huge kettles in the afternoon. We'll see them again on their way back North in March.

Doesn't Hinckley, Ohio celebrate their return every year?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:11 AM on January 6, 2012

Awesome! So basically I'm watching the vultures go to bed. Bonus question, then: why have I never seen this before? I've lived in this apartment for 6+ months and am frequently outside it around sunset at all times of the year. Does the preferred night-roosting place change based on the time of year?
posted by WidgetAlley at 6:58 AM on January 6, 2012

I think they're still on their way south. You haven't seen them before because this is your first winter there. This must be the same migration that goes through Carrollton, Georgia. I walked outside the morning after my PhD orals to see hundreds of vultures circling overhead. If they'd have come one day earlier, I probably would have fainted.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:25 AM on January 6, 2012

Where I live we had a large group (300+) of crows decide to winter in our town one year. I would see them every day. Walking around in the evening, we would hear an odd noise, look up and see hundreds of crows quietly perched in the trees above us. Next year there were fewer and now they don't seem to be around.
posted by bdc34 at 7:54 AM on January 6, 2012

Vultures roost every year in Ely, Nevada, too, on their way to wherever. Right over the cemetary. Dozens and dozens of them. Its awesome and creepy.
posted by elendil71 at 10:21 AM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

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