Everyone has them.
The sure-fire, never-fail signs of spring that they rely on each year to tell them that spring is here rather than just on its way. Because here in the Midwest – particularly the northern Midwest – the existence of spring is not a certainty, not even in May or June. Storms can still dump two feet of snow on the ground; ice can still coat the roads. But once you’ve seen those for-real signs, you know that even if the snow and ice does come, it won’t be here for long.
This is a turkey vulture:
Turkey vultures are graceful in the air; on their wide wings they soar – sometimes for hours without flapping once – riding thermals and the lightest of breezes, sometimes deliberately circling, sometimes simply letting the air currents send them across the sky. Often seen as ugly or disgusting (mostly because they’re part of nature’s cleanup crew), they’re carrion eaters, cleaning up the bodies of the dead critters killed by cars, predators, disease, age, exposure. Their scientific name, Cathartes aura, means “cleansing breeze,” and everything about them is geared to that very important job. Their sense of smell is incredibly keen; they can detect carrion from over a mile away, which is unusual for a bird. Their feet, when you get a close look at them, look more like a chicken’s than a raptor’s – suitable for gripping branches or sitting atop a dead animal, but useless for tearing into prey. Their beaks are powerful enough to rip through cowhide, but their neck muscles lack the leverage to deliver a killing stab to a live critter. And their bald heads mean the partially-rotted meat they eat won’t stick to feathers.
They are one of the primary signs of spring; they migrate south for the winter, since they can’t survive in the cold and can’t feed on frozen meat.
Saw a turkey vulture today, soaring above the Bluff – fairly close to where Bobbie and I were walking. At first we mistook it for an eagle (even though their flying silhouettes aren’t at all similar); then it drifted close enough for a good, solid look and I was delighted to realize what kind of bird it truly was. (The picture above is actually from two summers ago – pretty good shot, huh? There’s a flock of fifteen-twenty of them that take up residence on the hill above the house; they’re called a ‘wake’ when they’re perched, isn’t that funny?)
This is an American Kestrel:
They’re sometimes called a sparrow hawk, but most often you see them perched on telephone and electrical wires – generally near farms – staring at the ground. That’s how they hunt for mice, insects, sometimes even small snakes. If you’re lucky, you’ll see them dive off the wire into the ditch, and then bring their prey back up to the wire with them. They’re North America’s smallest falcon; up here in Minnesota, we see them roughly twice a year – when they migrate north to their breeding ground in the spring, and when they pass through as they migrate south for the winter.
Coming home this morning, I counted five kestrels sitting on the wires alongside the county road.
Now all I need is to see a Red Wing Blackbird, and spring will officially be here.