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When Ginny Hayssen, a volunteer with the University of Minnesota Raptor Center in St. Paul, launched the turkey vulture up in the air the bird flew 100 yards across an open field to a nearby tree. This marked the first time the rehabilitated bird had been in its native surroundings in the past six months.
Now making its home in Fillmore County, the turkey vulture was released at Forestville State Park on Saturday, June 16, as part of a formal release program between the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Raptor Center. About 50 park visitors attended the ceremony.
Found last December by Kevin Scheevel of rural Cherry Grove, the turkey vulture was unable to fly due to a broken wing. Scheevel reported the injured bird to park staff at Forestville State Park who captured it and sent it to the Raptor Center.
Specialists at the center estimated that the bird had broken its wing three weeks prior to being captured and had to rebreak the wing to get it to mend properly.
While turkey vultures are not in the raptor family, the bird is large enough to be treated at the center. According to Raptor Center volunteer Cindy Snyder, the center, in addition to treating hawks, eagles and other raptors, treats such big birds as turkey vultures and tundra swans.
“Raptor Center specialists weren’t hopeful about its recovery,” said Warren Netherton, a Cave Specialist at Forestville State Park, who along with Park Manager Mark White captured the bird with a blanket and a box. “They said re-breaking the wing sometimes causes ligaments to stretch that leaves birds unable to fly. I guess this one was lucky.”
The Raptor Center treats about 850 birds per year. Of this number, only three or four are vultures, of which only 40% are able to be returned to the wild.
Turkey vultures are usually about 27 inches long with a wing span of 69 inches. Adults, which weigh about four pounds, have a red unfeathered head and white bill. The birds, which migrate south during the winter, feed on carrion, refuse and small animals and are fairly common in Minnesota.
Netherton said that prior to World War II, before state health guidelines required that dead farm animals had to be rendered, there were large populations of turkey vultures in the area.
“It was common for farmers to drag a dead animal into the middle of a field and let turkey vultures eat on the flesh,” Netherton said. “Once that practice changed, the populations went down.”
Prior to being returned to the wild, the turkey vulture re-learned how to fly at the Raptor Center, practicing in a “flight room” on a 300 foot tethered cord. It was fed 100 grams of mice and rats each day.
Netherton said that capturing the bird was relatively simple, but they were prepared for the worst. Before going out to catch the disabled bird, Netherton and White had been warned about one of the more unpleasant characteristics of turkey vultures.
“The primary defense mechanism of a turkey vulture, when threatened, is to vomit,” Netherton explained.
And true to form, the bird threw up when the two men caught the bird. “It had been feasting on a dead raccoon,” Netherton said, shaking its head. “It was pretty disgusting.”