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Families gather for first-annual turkey vulture festival in Coralville

BY BRIAN ALBERT | JUNE 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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Four turkey vultures sat perched on the jagged gray rocks of the Coralville Dam on June 18.

Huddled closely, the birds fully extended their wings — most reaching a length of 5 or 6 feet across — to collect solar heat. As the ground warmed and hot air pockets began to rise, the scavengers lifted off to search for breakfast.

People witnessed the birds’ typical morning routine from hundreds of feet away using powerful telephoto lenses, as part of the first Turkey Vulture Festival.

“We’ve wanted to do a special event for the vultures for quite a long time,” said Terry Escher, a park ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers. “Eagles normally get all of the attention, but there’s a lot to love about these fascinating creatures.”

Escher planned the event with the help of Karen Disbrow, the president of the Iowa City Bird Club and member of the Iowa Ornithologists Union. The two said they wanted the event to begin last year, but road construction along the dam made the ideal festival grounds inaccessible.

“This is an event for everybody,” Disbrow said. “We wanted to make this fun for hard-core bird watchers, as well as children and people new to the hobby.”

And those plans came together. For every adult reading a pamphlet or holding a turkey-vulture wing, there was a child coloring, holding a snake, or sporting wild face paint.

“My daughter is having an absolute blast,” said Ellen Timm of North Liberty. “She even held a snake that was 3 feet long. There’s no way you could get me to do that.”

One father, Greg Lowe of Janesville, Wis., noticed the commotion from his campsite and attended out of pure curiosity.

“We just wanted to check things out,” Lowe said, his son clutching his leg, wearing green face paint and drinking a small cup of lemonade. “We’ve learned a lot, and [son] Kevin is having a great time. I’m glad we went exploring.”

Knowing that some would be inexperienced bird watchers, Escher and Disbrow invited Tex Sordahl, a professor of biology at Luther College in Decorah, to deliver some turkey-vulture knowledge.

He said he has studied the creatures for seven years, both alone and with students, and has published papers regarding the species.

“I guess [Escher and Disbrow] figured I knew what I was talking about,” he said, grinning. “I really want to show people what these birds are all about. A lot of people have the wrong idea.”

He went on to explain that turkey vultures are very clean, social birds and that strong stomach acid allows them to act as “nature’s cleanup crew.”

“Vultures waste is almost entirely sterile,” Sordahl said. “They eat all kids of decaying stuff, so their stomach acid has to be tough enough to kill lots of bacteria.”

And because the turnout was higher than expected — roughly 50 — and the cost was minimal Escher said plans to expand this event into an annual gathering are quite likely.

“The only costs were for the professional face painter, some lemonade, and granola bars,” she said.


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