The vultures are circling over Lewistown

Jenny Gessaman
A large black bird perches on the top of a dead tree, its spread wings revealing a huge wingspan.

A Lewistown turkey vulture spreads its wings.

Photo courtesy of Mona Chamberlain

The dots lazily circling their way across the Lewistown skies are a little different from their Wild West stereotypes: These vultures aren’t closing in on a dying cowboy, but, like many residents, heading home after a day’s work.

Mike and Mona Chamberlain have lived on Corcoran Street for over four decades, so they’re confident when they say turkey vultures are a new addition to the neighborhood.

“It’s just been in the last five or six years,” Mike said.

The vulture flocks recently spotted by Lewistown Trail users started with one or two pairs, according to him. The Chamberlains noted their sudden appearance, but only identified them after talking to a photographer snapping photos of the same species.

Now Mona enjoys her new neighbors.

“It’s kind of like our dirty little secret down here,” she laughed.

The giant bird has inspired the Chamberlains to take up bird watching, and the pair 

 often observes the flock’s routines.

“They prefer the dead trees when they’re sunning,” Mona said. “They’ll even come out on our telephone poles.”

After both the air and the vultures have warmed, the birds take to the skies searching for a meal.

“They’re kind of cool to watch because sometimes they make formations,” Mike said.

The flock returns in the evening, often roosting in large, living trees.

“It’s like a hotel: They come in and sleep at night,” Mona said.

Mona and Mike agreed the birds were not only fun to watch, but also a pleasure to live near. Mike said the vultures didn’t make any noise, and didn’t appear to have any noticeable impact on the nearby wildlife or woods. Even with a carrion diet, the flock was tidy, according to him.

“They’re not messy,” Mike explained. “With the amount of birds that are here, you would never know.”

It’s difficult to believe the birds are hard to notice, given their description. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Montana Field Guide lists a height of roughly 2-3 feet, with a wingspan of up to 6 feet. While young vultures have blackish-grey heads, the guide says mature adults have bald, bright red heads.

Montana’s turkey vulture presence does have a time limit, though. The Montana Field Guide identifies the species as a summer breeding resident, and says the population heads to the southern U.S. or Central America for the winter.

Even with a seasonal appearance, the tendency for turkey vultures to gather in large roosting flocks has drawn the attention of Lewistown local Dave Sanders. A falconer since he was 13, and owner of Judith River Taxidermy, Sanders has an interest in native wildlife, especially the avian kind.

While the vultures don’t fall into the raptor classification, he stills finds the bird fascinating.

“It’s one of the few birds that use a sense of smell,” he said.

Lewistown turkey vultures may also hold another kind of fascination. The species commonly nests in caves and hollow trees, but some people think the local birds are building nests in the trees, a rare occurrence.

“The reason I’m interested in it is to see if they’re actually nesting there,” Sanders said.

He looks forward to observing the birds, and is happy to have that chance in Lewistown.

“They don’t cause really any trouble,” he said. “They’re the cleanup crew.”



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