by Sarah Gray/Managing Editor
A young turkey vulture — about the size of a chicken — makes its way across the loft of an old barn in Marshall. It is covered in fluffy white plumage, with the tips of its wings beginning to darken, and hops three times, while its sibling squawks and approaches on screen.
The two youths are approximately one month old now. They crouch down on the floor and rest against each other.
“Literature says they nest on the ground,” said Marshall resident John Carton.
However, since 2009, he and friend Chuck Hird have been watching the nest in the loft of a century-old barn.
“They do that a lot, just lay out,” Hird laughed, watching the chicks now sprawled on the floor, motionless. He then pulls up a playback of the video recording on his computer monitor when the adult bird arrived. “This is just about an hour ago when they were feeding.”
The bird watchers can monitor the nest and activity from the comfort of home. On Tuesday, June 28, they met at Hird’s home — an old bedroom transformed into a sort of control room with equipment and monitors.
“John was the first one who started recording them with a still camera,” Hird explained. “And that’s how the whole thing came about, because he had this whole sequence of pictures.”
In 2009, Carton was crawling up to the loft with a 35 mm camera — choosing times the parents were away to cause as little disturbance as possible. Over time, he was able to create a 50-plus-page slideshow the growth and development of turkey vultures. Hird later sent Carton’s pictures to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
“They called me and said they had sent them on to somebody else,” Hird stated. “And that’s how the Raptor Resource Project got involved. He called me. It was Bob Anderson at the time. He has since passed away. Now it’s John Howe who is the director.
“Bob Anderson was so excited, because he had done this for years with other raptors and had never been able to do Missouri turkey vultures. Even though they, a lot of times, roost in an old barn, barns aren’t usually close enough for electricity … this was 300 feet away, so he was so excited when he came down with all the equipment.”
Every year except two, they have seen two successful babies.
“It’s really amazing the different personalities that the chicks have,” Carton said, smiling. “In previous years, we’ve seen chicks that just fight each other all the time, or compete for the food. These two cooperate with everything. They seem to be just little buddies. They cuddle and stay together.”
Hird explained that before the birds fledge — this year that will be in late August — they walk around the loft stretching their wings.
“When they’re adults, they’ll have a 6-foot wing span,” he said. “But they’ll pretend like they fly and do all kinds of things.”
Hird and Carton check the live stream again, both birds still on the floor, perhaps lethargic from the heat. The benefit of live cams: one can check in at any time to see what and how they are doing.
In addition to Hird, Carton and the staff with Raptor Resource Project, the birds have already attracted a widespread audience. Tuesday morning, four people in Seoul, South Korea, five people in Vienna, and hundreds in multiple states and countries had their eyes on the Marshall turkey vultures. But in the mugginess of the Midwest summer, Hird and Carton were focused on study — what they can learn from the hatchlings.
“It’s opportune,” Carton stated, noting they were fortunate to learn about the Raptor Resource Project in Iowa, which was “focusing on understanding birds and their place in nature, and studying them.”
“And realizing that there’s much more to the life of a bald eagle (for example) than we really understand unless we really make a study of it,” Carton said. “(Bob Anderson) came down to see it, convinced us it would be a good idea… It was intriguing enough to get volunteer help from (electrician) Mike Mills.”
It is not known if the same pair of birds has returned to roost in the barn, or if offspring have done so. But watching the eggs hatch, the young grow up and stretch their wings were Hird and Carton’s sons camped out as boys, seems enough to entice them to continue documenting the species.
You can watch the live stream video by going to www.raptorresource.org, clicking on the “Watch Birds” tab, and scrolling down to “Missouri Turkey Vultures.”
Raptor Resource Project also has links to multiple other live cams.