It isn't often you can get close to a turkey vulture…"close" being a relative term, of course. While a chickadee might not decide you're invading their space until the distance separating the two of you is under six feet, a buzzard—which is what most country folks hereabouts call these big sepulchral creatures—is quite a bit more stand-offish. Closer than a hundred feet and they're apt to get edgy—and even that is often pushing things.
They're just being sensible. For all their soaring mastery aloft, turkey vultures are slow and clumsy when it comes to getting their ungainly selves airborne. Should your intentions be detrimental to their welfare, they know they need time and to get "on the wing" and make their escape.
Sure, maybe they're a little paranoid. Or it could be they're aware of being regarded by many with ill-concealed distaste, if not malice aforethought. Buzzards aren't exactly warm and fuzzy. In the public mind, they're the feathered lepers of the bird world—unsavory characters, unclean, undesirables best shooed away to conduct their dirty business elsewhere.
It's always surprising to me how many otherwise decent outdoor folks count vultures as lesser members of the avian clan—unfairly viewing them through a similar prejudicial lens as many do undertakers and coroners, simply because the birds share their own commitment to the dead, wherein they play a top role in nature's necessary clean-up crew. Frankly, I suspect such an unfounded bias may simply reveal an inability among these intolerant individuals to handle reminders of their own fleeting mortality.
Whatever the cause, buzzards usually like to keep their distance…except when curiosity seems to override their caution.
Turkey vultures are fixtures here along the river. Welcome neighbors. When not off sailing the high blue sky, they regularly roost, sunbathe, and lazily loll among the huge sycamores across from the cottage. It's not uncommon to step outside and find several vultures sitting on a nearby limb. Most times they promptly fly off. But occasionally they wait, as if choosing to watch first and see what might be happening. If my activity looks interesting, they're apt to hang around for quite a while—a black-robed audience taking in a free show.
The turkey vuture in the photo above seemed more curious than alarmed. I was checking out a stretch of river a mile or so above here. Several buzzards were circling around and playing in the updrafts over an open hillside. I watched this individual bird break from the pack, angling down, descending to land in a nearby clump of understory bushes beside the gravel lane.
The vulture seemed to be watching, interested about what I was up to. It stayed put when I walked back to the truck and began driving slowly its way—eyeing me as I drew parallel to where it sat, eight feet up on the right-hand side of the road.
I stopped. The buzzard held. I made its portrait through the pickup's windshield—though it's admittedly not a very good photo. The bird looked at me. I waved, then buzzed down the passenger-side window and offered some pleasantry about the weather. No response. Unfortunately I had things to do. So I waved again and drove slowly on by.
And after I'd passed, I watched in the review mirror as the bird hopped off the limb, caught the wind under its wide wings, and began sailing off and up to rejoin its brethren.