Tippy the turkey vulture

Tippy the turkey vulture is in residence at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington.

Hallmark doesn’t have a card for it – yet – but the first Saturday of September nonetheless is celebrated as International Vulture Awareness Day.

And in Arlington, that means a visit to Long Branch Nature Center and Tippy the resident turkey vulture.

Six years ago, the adolescent bird was found wandering the town of Round Hill with a broken right wing, perhaps from being nicked in a car strike. It took five days for animal-control officers in Loudoun County to catch her, and when they did, they offered her to Arlington.

“We thought, ‘this would be really cool’ – and she’s been a very popular animal here,” said Cliff Fairweather, the Long Branch park naturalist, as he led an hour-long program celebrating vultures on Sept. 7.

Fairweather and other nature-center staff use “she” to describe Tippy, although they aren’t quite sure – male and female turkey vultures are relatively indistinguishable except to other turkey vultures. A blood test would solve the riddle, but so far there has been no need to do one.

(While gender is an issue, the name “Tippy” has a ready explanation: Turkey vultures tend to tip from side to side in flight.)

Despite a physical appearance that only a mother could love, turkey vultures (and the other local specimen, black vultures) are essential to the ecosystem. They feast on the remains of dead animals, their digestive tracts neutralizing many of the diseases that emit from rotting bodies. The Cherokee Nation calls turkey vultures the “peace eagle” because the bird never kills to eat, but subsists on the already dead.

Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell, being able to pick up the scent of a carcass a mile away. So they are often earliest on the scene of a post-mortem smorgasbord, although black vultures often keep tabs on the situation, and sometimes attempt to muscle in on the action.

“Usually everyone gets enough to eat,” Fairweather noted, although if eagles happen to arrive on the scene, the vultures have the sense to back off until those powerful birds have had their fill, before filling up on any leftovers.

Despite their, mmmm, unique appearance, turkey vultures seem to enjoy camaraderie. They are described as mostly social birds, migrating as far afield as South America together in groups and only pairing up one-on-one during the breeding season.

Under the careful eye of her keepers, Tippy never needs to fear going hungry. Everything from deer to possum to plump rats are part of her diet. (Perhaps Tippy’s favorite treat is snake. Fairweather says she “got all excited” the last time one was offered up for dinner.)

Should a live snake, or some other unsuspecting creature, meander unsuspectingly into her enclosure, they probably are safe. Vultures don’t like fresh meat, preferring it to be at least 12 hours dead – though no more than four days old. “Even vultures have standards,” Fairweather deadpanned.

During the Sept. 7 festivities, Tippy eyed the humans outside her cage a tad warily, waiting to nosh on the rat that had just been deposited for her.

“She’s never been very tame, but she’s tolerant of people,” Fairweather said, noting he expects Tippy will be in the care of Arlington for the rest of her life, which could be 30 years or more.

In the wild, vultures have few natural enemies outside of vehicles and, occasionally, aircraft engines. If coyotes are hungry enough, they’ll be willing to go after one, but that is relatively rare. And humans better keep their hands off, as turkey vultures are among the species protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Since she arrived at the nature center six years ago, Tippy’s only permanent vulture companion has been a mirror, where she can see herself. Fairweather said the hope is to eventually get her a friend (although not a mate; the nature center isn’t eager for baby vultures on their hands). Budget issues – mostly dealing with food costs – have thus far prevented that, even though there are a number of captive vultures at rehabilitation facilities across the region that could be acquired.

At an unrelated event the same day as the vulture festival, the Sun Gazette buttonholed two County Board members and won general support for acquiring a buddy for Tippy. Just one more to go and there is a board majority for the proposition.

Tippy can be visited any time the nature center, located at 625 South Carlin Springs Road, is open. Fairweather suggests those interested should read Katie Fallon’s “Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird” for a better understanding of the role played by vultures in the ecosystem.

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