The Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura is a common bird in the south of the United States and has a range from southern Canada to the tip of the southern American continent – though for reasons unknown to me it is not found in that part of the central Misssissippi delta that I’ve been in for the last week or so. We found this bird soaring over a nature reserve south of Cleveland earlier this week.
Turkey Vultures have many of the typical characteristics of vultures – they only eat carrion, have a bare fleshy head and acute sight that allows them to spot carrion from a substantial distance.
One characteristic of Turkey Vultures that is unusual among birds is that they have a very strong sense of smell that enables them to locate their dead and decaying food that might otherwise be obscured from sight within forests.
Clumsy when on the ground, these birds are beautiful to watch when soaring on a thermal or on the wind and characteristically have a swinging or jinking flight when lower to the ground or in forested areas. At height their flight is effortless and they cover large areas looking for food.
I have a couple of reference books on American Indian legends and stories in my library at home in Yuendumu but, as I’m in Baton Rouge I can’t get to them – so for now here is some information I found at Paul Frost’s page:
In American Indian mythology, it was believed that the sun was originally much closer to the earth & was in danger of burning it up. First the fox unsuccessully tried to pull the sun away in its mouth, accounting for the black inside of its mouth. Next the opossum unsuccessully tried to pull the sun away with its tail, accounting for the hairless tail. Finally a beautiful fully feathered vulture successfully pushed the sun away from the earth with its head, thus becoming bald for eternity.
The Pueblo Indians believed the vulture to be a symbol of purification, using the feathers of the Turkey Vulture to remove evil influences from people & objects.
The return of the Turkey Vulture after winter was believed to signify the end of frosts. They often return to their summer feeding grounds precisely on the Vernal Equinox, the winter migration often starts around the Autumnal Equinox.
Wearing a feather of a Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus – meaning “vulture dressed in black”) was believed to prevent rheumatism.
Paul also notes that he has:
…come across two meanings for the scientific name, Cathartes aura. Both take the first part as deriving from the Greek “katharsis” meaning to purify or to cleanse. One meaning takes the second part to derive from the latin “aureus” meaning golden, so the full name meaning “golden purifier“. The other definition takes the second part to derive from the greek “aura“, meaning breeze, so the full name meaning “cleansing breeze“. I can find no definitive confirmation of which is correct. One other translation takes the first part to mean “pacifier“, but I can find no alternate derivation & it is stretching the commonly used meaning of catharsis.