Branson Celebrates Turkey Vultures: Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery Hosts Vulture Ventures

By Don Corrigan

In mid-March, Californians welcome their famous cliff swallows back to Capistrano. In late February, Missourians welcome their infamous turkey vultures to the Shepherd of the Hills Fish Hatchery with an annual Vulture Venture.

Missouri’s turkey vultures are infamous because they are considered ugly and repulsive by many. However, the dark-colored birds deserve a better reputation because these large birds perform an invaluable service in nature.

Turkey vultures do valuable clean-up duties by ridding the landscape of dead animals. They thoroughly enjoy a meal of rotting flesh and odorous carcass. Where others fear to tread, the turkey vultures are always ready to chow down.

Technically, the vultures do not actually return to the Branson area in late February. They are present in great numbers in the vicinity of the hatchery all winter. However, they become more visible as the winter cold recedes in late February and the air gets warmer.

The increased sunlight as spring approaches will prompt the turkey vultures to begin stirring. As the air warms, the birds are once again able to ride the thermals and scout the ground below for potential breakfast, lunch and dinner as they fly.

Vultures can be viewed around Lake Taneycomo throughout the year, but in winter the trout-fishing spot attracts these birds by the hundreds. Resident and migrating vultures love the canyon-like topography that can give the birds protection from cold winds. Plenty of large shoreline trees also offer vultures sturdy roosting sites.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) invites people to view these misunderstood birds at its annual Vulture Venture program. The program is always located at Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery on the west end of Lake Taneycomo, just below Table Rock Dam.

Vulture Ventures have been happening since 1994 and can include a number of activities, such as displays of a captive vulture with a handler, usually from Wonders of Wildlife in Springfield; children’s activities with spotting scopes for viewing vultures in the wild; and, a children’s vulture roadkill game.

The vulture game involves a magnetic vulture on a pole placed over roadkill cutouts. A six-sided die is rolled to select which roadkill a turkey vulture prefers:  a possum, skunk, armadillo, trout or squirrel.

Rewards for children in the game  is “roadkill,” aka a cupful of animal cracker cookies.
Because the hatchery building in Branson is now undergoing some renovations, the exact date for the 2023 Vulture Venture has not yet been announced.

Look for an announcement on the exact date for the 2023 Vulture Venture later in January here on the Environmental Echo website.

Local Vulture Factoids

Lake Taneycomo at Branson has one of the largest populations of turkey vultures in the state of Missouri, and in recent years it also has become home to black vultures venturing northward.

Both black vultures and turkey vultures are carrion feeders. Black vultures can be troublesome, because they sometimes do not wait for a small animal to die. Ranchers sometimes call them carrion crows, because they will attack newborn calves, sheep, or piglets.

Because these birds are raptors, they are federally-protected, and a special permit is required to control them. Black vultures have black heads and turkey vultures have red heads. Both species’ heads are featherless.

Because they are much more common than eagles in the Ozarks, tourists often see turkey vultures circling over river cliffs, and mistake them for eagles. However, eagles flap their wings and soar lower than the vultures do. Eagles also create large nests in trees, while turkey vultures lay their eggs in cliff face holes.

Like cormorants, turkey vultures often hold their wings half-open after feeding, and the outline of a turkey vulture against the sky shows a more bent wing outline than an eagle. Turkey vultures are considered to be the inspiration for the much-revered thunderbird in Native American iconography – not the eagle.

The turkey vulture is not only famous for inspiring the image of the thunderbird for Native Americans, but in more recent times, Terry the Turkey Vulture has become a narrator for a children’s road safety coloring book.

Coloring book production manager Jo Schaper explained how this all came to pass, with Terry the Turkey Vulture becoming a prominent storybook character. It all happened at a meeting of author Don Corrigan, artist Laura Jackson and Schaper.

“When Don, Laura and I were brainstorming at a Panera restaurant in Eureka about his roadkill coloring book to accompany his American Roadkill book, I looked up, and what did I see circling over I-44 for roadkill – two turkey vultures,” recalled Schaper.

“So, I said to Don, ‘You need a narrator for the text of the coloring book. Why not a turkey vulture?’ These birds are experts on roadkill. And that’s how a star was born,” Schaper said.

One response to “Branson Celebrates Turkey Vultures: Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery Hosts Vulture Ventures

  1. Turkey vultures are always looking for a free roadkill meal along highways, and sometimes they become roadkill themselves.

    That is why Terry the Turkey Vulture is an excellent spokesperson for road safety coloring book. Was it Divine Providence when turkey vultures appeared for the creation of the coloring book in Eureka!

    Like

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