Section: Features

Leaving the nest: A look at Kenyon’s beloved black vultures

Leaving the nest: A look at Kenyon’s beloved black vultures

Vultures on Mather Residence Hall | COURTESY OF DAN SPARVERO

As the weather becomes chillier and the days darker, the presence of vultures on campus is growing more striking. If you’ve looked up to see a big, black bird circling overhead or have walked past dozens of beady eyes perched together stealthily on a residential roof, you were likely in the company of vultures. 

Gambier, like the rest of Ohio, is home to two types of vultures: turkey and black. Turkey vultures, like turkeys, have bald, red heads and brownish-blackish bodies. When they are flying, they exhibit gray feathers that cover the underside of their wings. Black vultures have bodies entirely covered in black feathers and bald heads that reveal black skin. When soaring, their silver wingtips are displayed. The Hill is home to more black vultures than turkey vultures.

Many students have taken notice of these ominous-looking birds, especially first-years who have yet to become fully acquainted with Gambier’s diverse wildlife. “I see birds circling sometimes, and I don’t know why,” Ava Genco-Kamin ’27 remarked. Thankfully, Assistant Professor of Biology Natalie Wright has the answers. 

Wright is an expert ornithologist and focuses her studies on how flight affects bird evolution. She explained why there are such high numbers of black vultures in Gambier in an interview with the Collegian: “Black vultures are interesting as they have only recently expanded their range to include Gambier…There’s something going on where they’re expanding northward…as a part of that, they seem to be doing some migration through Gambier.” Wright went on to explain that black vultures can be found in Gambier year-round, but there are much greater numbers in the fall and spring during migration. 

Wright proceeded to clarify the real reason behind the curious circling of vultures spotted by students on campus. Vultures, like eagles and hawks, are soaring birds. Columns of warm air, known as thermals, allow soaring birds to migrate. “They circle within those columns. They’re not circling because they see a dying animal like the movies tell you,” Wright explained. This is the pattern for vultures: they find a thermal usually thousands of feet above the ground, circle within the column and then glide to the next thermal in the direction of their migration. 

This process also explains why so many black vultures can be seen perched on campus earlier in the day. “Early in the morning you don’t have warm air on the ground and you don’t have those thermals. And so in the mornings on your way to class where you sometimes see a bunch of vultures sitting on Rosse Hall — they’re often just sitting there waiting for the air to warm up enough for those thermals to be created,” Wright said. Moreover, they don’t congregate in large groups in order to attack unassuming first-years, but they do so with the intention of scaring off their own predators. 

Though the vultures may appear frightening, the campus community can rest assured that they pose no threat to innocent students; in fact, they do a great service to Gambier by cleaning up animal remains on the roads.

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