Heavy dusk covered the sky like a gray flannel sheet laying over the forest canopy. Light faded quickly, and the chilled air crept under my collar.

My husband, with his large, calloused hand, squeezed mine. I looked at him and followed his eyes. Six black figures slowly soared over a large tree like vampires in an old black-and-white horror film. The tree held another 13 large, hunched, black creatures.

“Vultures,” I whispered back.

He nodded. We have lived in this forest for 13 years, but we have never seen this many vultures roosting so close to the house.

Vultures may be one of the most misunderstood animals in the avian world. Many Midwesterners call vultures “buzzards.” They are not. What we see are “New World vultures – the common turkey vulture (cathartes aura, which means golden purifier), and in Missouri we also have black vultures (coragyps atratus, meaning vulture dressed in black).

True buzzards are “Old World vultures” that live in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

While vultures are classed as predators, they are not. Vultures do not kill their meals. They are scavengers and clean the dead and decaying animals in the area. They are one of the few birds that can smell.

(It is an old wives’ tale that if you touch a baby bird the mother will reject it. “Mother” birds have an extraordinary weak sense of sense, or none.)

Vultures’ heads and feet are clean of feathers, so pieces of what they are walking on or eating won’t stick to their feathers. Imagine what they would look like after feasting on a roadkill deer.

When turkey vultures are soaring, you can identify them by the V-shape that their wings form. If you see a large bird soaring, yet their wings appear to be flat across the shoulders it is most likely a hawk or other large bird. Turkey vultures are identifiable from black vultures by their head, which is small, red and without feathers. The beak is short, hooked and white, with pink to white legs. They get their name because their head is red like a turkey’s. Turkey vultures are 27 inches tall with a 70-inch wingspan. (Wow – almost 6 feet!)

Black vultures are entirely black with the exception of a small, white patch near the outer end of the wings, and white legs. In flight, black vultures wings are slightly flatter without such a pronounced V-shape, nearly horizontal. Black vultures are 25 inches tall with a 58-inch wingspan (nearly 5 feet!).

Vultures are able to consume huge amounts of carrion at one feeding. I once heard that they could eat 1½ times their body weight at a time. The turkey vulture is unique among all other vultures and buzzards in that when threatened, it can regurgitate its last meal on command. The extremely foul odor of the contents spilled before the would-be attacker is enough to make the offender flee immediately.

Throughout history vultures have been misaligned and associated with myths, tales, bad omens and death. However, they have a crucial role in cleaning up dead animals. We feel lucky that they have chosen our trees this spring for their nightly resting place.

Reach Lynn Youngblood at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.