A young turkey vulture roams in the African Forest habitat at the Detroit Zoo. Staff rescued the wild bird from the stairwell of a golf course next door to the zoo and fed him until he was strong enough to take flight.

A young turkey vulture roams in the African Forest habitat at the Detroit Zoo. Staff rescued the wild bird from the stairwell of a golf course next door to the zoo and fed him until he was strong enough to take flight.

Photo provided by the Detroit Zoo


Wild turkey vulture gets assist from the Detroit Zoo

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published August 11, 2020

 A juvenile wild turkey vulture perches on a log in the African Forest at the Detroit Zoo.

A juvenile wild turkey vulture perches on a log in the African Forest at the Detroit Zoo.

Photo provided by the Detroit Zoo

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ROYAL OAK — The Detroit Zoo recently helped a young feathered friend who got separated from his parents and nest at the Rackham Golf Course located next door to the zoo in Huntington Woods.

Zoo staff spotted the juvenile, recognizable by fluffy white feathers around its neck, wandering around the golf course seeking shelter in bushes and, the same day, golf course staff alerted the zoo about the bird after they observed him stuck in a stairwell.

Bonnie Van Dam, associate curator of birds for the Detroit Zoological Society, said zoo staff spent a good deal of time trying to locate the turkey vulture’s nest to no avail. While turkey vultures are abundant in Michigan, they are secretive nesters.

With permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the zoo rescued the bird July 12 and allowed it to roam free in the African Forest at the Detroit Zoo.

“It was one of those strange situations where we’re often called in, and this one happened to be right next door to us,” DZS Chief Life Sciences Officer Scott Carter said. “Because it is a migratory species, there are special protections in place and we have to make sure we respect those protections.”

While the zoo officially has custody of one rescued turkey vulture that cannot fly, approximately 25 wild turkey vultures also frequent the zoo. Carter said they are commonly seen soaring overhead and gathering at Pierson Lake in the American Grasslands section of the zoo.

Van Dam said the juvenile was in need of nutrients, which he could not obtain himself because he was still in the stage where his parents hunt and regurgitate prey for him.

“There was nothing medically wrong. We could just tell right away that his blood feathers were in the process of turning into flight feathers and he couldn’t fly,” Van Dam said. “We provided food and we started noticing him climbing higher and higher and perching on trees. The nutrients we gave him allowed his feathers to finish growing.”

He soon began practicing flight, and Van Dam said that zoo staff saw him coming and going around the zoo before he eventually flew the coop sometime around July 28.

“We’re hoping his parents are nearby, but we’re not sure. At his age, he might join the group when they all migrate. We’re kind of assuming he’s been reunited with his family,” she said.

For the last 10 or 12 years, Van Dam said, a growing number of the flock of turkey vultures that enjoys the food that the zoo has to offer has been overwintering at the zoo. Generally, they migrate to Florida or northern South America.

“They’ve adapted to the resources we provide unintentionally at the zoo, because we have food and open water, and our Michigan winters have been becoming more mild,” she said.

Van Dam added that, while it’s never fun when a bird fledges the nest too soon, she was glad that the young turkey vulture’s story had a happy ending.

“It was a really neat experience,” she said.

According to the zoo, turkey vultures contribute to the environment by scavenging and their strong stomachs can break down rotting carcasses. Unlike other vultures, turkey vultures have a good sense of smell, which helps them find food.

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