Sunday, August 27, 2017

Black Vultures Close Up--A Photoshoot and Princeton History

Black vultures four--who could ask for anything more? Okay, there are just three in this family photo. We'll get to the fourth one in a minute. This past Sunday, prior to a work session clearing invasive shrubs in Herrontown Woods, and equipped with better cameras, we returned to Veblen Cottage to check in on the black vulture family mentioned in a previous post.

I guess family values aren't the first thing that comes to mind when people think of vultures, but these black vultures are a tight-knit group. That's mom and pop on the right, with the wrinkly skin on their heads (best not to sully any feathers when dipping one's head daintily into rotting carcasses). Hard to know which parent is which. Vultures don't flaunt their sexual identity. And that's a fledgling on the left, still with baby fuzz on the head.

Family means something for black vultures. On this AllAboutBirds site, they are described by the writer as "one of my favorite birds." He describes their characteristic flight pattern: a few beats of the wings followed by a glide." "Highly social birds with fierce family loyalty," he says, "Black Vultures share food with relatives, feeding young for months after they’ve fledged." It may not be coincidence that, in this serendipitous photoshoot, the parents gave their fledgling the top perch on the chimney.

As we snapped photos from below, the birds were surprisingly cooperative, adopting various poses, from noble, to domestic, to nobly domestic.

Laurie Larson, longtime birder in Princeton who has tracked population numbers over the years as part of the Christmas Bird Count (her data and stories below), suggested the fledgling bears a striking resemblance to Voltaire. People have long suspected a ghost residing in the rather disheveled Veblen Cottage. Was it Veblen himself? Einstein? Now we know.

While the three vultures were preening for the camera up on the chimney of the cottage, another fledgling, looking a bit down and out, was hiding in the corn crib. It didn't seem to be able to fly up to join its kin on the chimney.

When I approached, it shuffled out of the corn crib and hid in the brush.

Laurie's Voltaire comparison is spot on, but I also see something of Art Garfunkle here.

As an aside, given that the photos were taken at the Veblen Cottage at Herrontown Woods, Oswald Veblen died on the brink of the 60s era, but Garfunkel, who performed last year in Princeton, shares Veblen's broad interest in math, architecture and great books. Garfunkel initially majored in architecture, and completed coursework for a PhD in math education while part of Simon and Garfunkel. His interest for numbers expressed itself early on as a fascination with the rise of hits on the pop charts. He has kept a full and public accounting of books he has read, including Voltaire in 1969. He also has that second banana status, which Veblen knew well from living, perhaps contentedly enough, in the shadow of his more famous uncle Thorstein and science icons like Einstein and von Neumann. Part of the joy of the Herrontown Woods project is rediscovering the value of forgotten buildings and legacies that have long flown beneath most people's radar.

Here's the farmstead's little barn and corncrib, whose impending demolition earlier this year by the county, along with all the other Veblen buildings, seemed unstoppable until so many people in the community spoke out to support an initiative by Friends of Herrontown Woods ( to save them. Fortunately, for the black vultures as well as the history of Herrontown Woods, Princeton town council swooped in, raptor-like, and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. FOHW is now working on an agreement with the town to repair and sustain the buildings, while, of course, continuing habitat and trail work, and snapping photos of the local wildlife.

It's funny about the black vultures. They've provided a somewhat haunting presence around the farmstead for years. Not sure what to do with the connotations they carry, we tried to pay them little mind, preferring to talk about the flashy pileated woodpeckers and the elusive great-horned owl. But maybe it's time to give the vultures their due. They are a cleansing force in the universe. They deal with stuff no one else wants to deal with. They find sustenance in unlikely places, and extend the food chain one link further. They're faithful and diligent parents.

I liked this pose, two generations on a branch.

In the distance, you can see the other parent perched on the chimney of the cottage. This was just before they assembled for the group shots on the chimney.

The vultures appreciate the Veblen Cottage's classic design with a chimney at either end. If they knew, they'd appreciate its "balloon" construction, too, meaning the studs extend from the foundation all the way up to the roof. Balloon construction, according to one builder I spoke to, explains why the cottage is still standing, after so much neglect.

Any good photo shoot includes grooming behavior. The parents groomed the juvenile; the juvenile groomed the parents.

One adult aimed for the noble raptor look, confirming the AllAboutBirds writer's view that these vultures are "almost dapper."

Things got downright statuesque here, with the juvenile taking the parents under its wings.

Five days later, we were standing in the Veblen House driveway in late morning when we heard a great ruckus in the treetops behind the barn, not far from the cottage. My friend was giving me advice about fixing up the Veblen House. He didn't have much time, and what he was saying was important. I dismissed the ruckus in the treetops as small birds hassling a crow or hawk or owl. I continued to listen to my friend as the calls reached a blood curdling frenzy. Life was on the line, be it a bird or squirrel. We headed over to take a look just as a large black bird flew off down the hill, the noise fading behind. It looked large enough to have been an eagle.

We walked over to the cottage, and found the second juvenile had been hiding in the crawlspace. It came out and walked ahead of us around the corner,

then hopped onto the old kitchen sink and spread its wings, looking our way, as if to impress us, then hopped down and headed towards the corncrib.

Later, I grew concerned about what might have transpired in the treetops. Who was the aggressor and who was the victim? Eagles are one of the few predators of black vultures, which in turn occasionally prey on weak or injured animals. Was that large dark bird that flew off a vulture, and had it been on the attack or defending its own fledgling? Black vultures lack vocal organs, so the mortal cries must have been generated by something else.

It occurred that the reason the vultures had been so patient with our photoshoot five days prior was that they were lingering at the cottage to guard the weaker fledgling, hoping it would find the strength to join them in flight.

I returned to the Veblen Cottage the next day to find the vultures gone. After years of trying to ignore them, I suddenly felt their absence.

Thanks to Laurie Larson for the additional info below on black vultures in Princeton. The black vulture, according to another member of the Friends of Rogers Refuge who keeps careful records, Tom Southerland, was first seen in Princeton on March 2, 1980, as part of a general expansion of range northward into the northeast. He noted that they "sleep in later" than the turkey vultures. Vultures in general have a good excuse for sleeping in, given that the thermals don't get going until the sun's a good ways up.

One of the great draws of Princeton for vultures in general back then was the Winant Farm, later preserved with a conservation easement in 2002 as Coventry Farm, between Mountain Lakes and the Great Road. Mrs. Winant in particular loved vultures, and provided a place where police could leave roadkilled deer for the vultures to eat. Roadkill back then was a steadily increasing problem, as the deer population continued to climb until professional culling was finally begun in 2000 under Mayor Marshand. The dramatic circling of dozens (hundreds?) of vultures over the Winant Farm drew a lot of attention to the birds back when black vultures were first arriving on a scene long dominated by turkey vultures, and led to some careful documentation of their numbers, which Laurie provides, below.
Here is everything I know about Princeton Vultures. I was fascinated with them back in the day. The Coventry Farm roost built up during the 1980s. Originally it was all Turkey Vultures; Black Vultures first appeared in 1984 and their numbers rose steadily, although on our Christmas Bird Counts the Turkey Vultures were always in the majority. The all-time high count of Turkey Vultures for the Princeton count circle still stands at 615, in 1986, which was one of the years Jim Williams and I counted the Coventry Farm vultures. That year, Black Vultures were at 79; the first appearance of the species in the Princeton count was just 2 years earlier at 38, and they peaked in 1994 at 102, with 257 Turkey Vultures, still in the same area/same counters.  The present high count for Black Vultures is now 116, from 2008; I was the compiler at that time. I believe that was a composite of several roosts, including two in Kingston/Griggstown and others around the circle. The roost at Coventry farm didn't exist any more by that time. I moved to Montgomery in 2001 and others began covering the northwest-Princeton territory. It has gone uncounted in recent years except for someone who does Mountain Lakes.
Vultures aren't necessarily easy to count. We worked hard to get exact numbers during that period when the Black Vultures exploded into NJ. Coventry Farm was an excellent indicator site and we tried to census it the same way each year. You are correct that there was a field on the northeast corner of the farm away from the road where the police put road killed deer; this was the time when the deer population exploded and there was not yet any control plan. That was probably the trigger for the creation of the vulture roosts in that area. There were at least three interrelated roost groves -- Coventry Farm itself, North Road/Pretty Brook Road, and the corner of the Great Road and Mountain Avenue. These are all in sight of each other (we used to stand by the road in the new development at Mountain Ave./Great Road to count). All are planted groves of large spruces or hemlocks. The birds shifted around among the three, making it hard to count them. We would try to get an estimate at the end of the day (3-4:30 PM or so) of the vultures going into roost. Also, for comparison, we arranged to visit Mrs. Winant on Count day at 8 AM each year, to count the birds in the pines around her barns before they started to rise and soar for the day. I used to make an appointment every December by sending a note to tell her when we'd be coming.  She would lock up her dogs and come out to greet us and then dish out can after can of dogfood right on the driveway for the vultures. The Black Vultures were much more aggressive and would come right up to the food, pushing the Turkey Vultures aside. I don't know whether she did this daily, or whether this was a special effort for us on the Christmas Count. She was not a native English speaker and a bit hard to understand; but she was devoted to animals. A friend of mine drove up with a van full of birders on a field trip he was leading; he actually recruited her as a NJ Audubon member, when she found out they had come out of their way to see "her" birds. She also rescued burros and emus and various other critters, which I don't suppose are still around either. It was quite an adventure to visit the farm and I remember those Christmas Counts in great detail.
I am not sure of the date that the Black Vulture nest was found at Cradle Rock. I believe it was around 1990. I hiked in with a friend after hearing the report, and we found a smelly cave with an adult Vulture, standing on a rock, which hissed at us. We did not want to disturb things further and didn't see a chick at that time. 
Here are the numbers from the Princeton CBC:

The only other thing I can offer about Princeton Vultures is that they used to love to sit on the water tower that was behind the YWCA and Merwick, on Paul Robeson Ave. They caught the morning sun in winter on their outspread wings. Promptly at the Spring equinox they'd disappear until next fall. My assumption has always been that the equinox was their trigger to start looking for a nest site. When I lived at Stanworth I enjoyed seeing them every day and took note of their disappearance. These guys were probably close enough to also be a splinter group from the big Coventry roost.
PS Vultures were not the only "good" birds from Coventry farm. In 1994 a flock of gulls was attracted to the barnyard on CBC day, and Jim and I were astonished to find the count's first Lesser Black-backed Gull among them, as well as only the third Iceland gull ever.


  1. It's nice to read of the black vultures. We saw one a few years ago atop the chimney. It faced us and spread its wings wide, posing for several minutes. If only I'd had my telephoto lens with me!
    You have a fine set of pictures from 2017 in the link at "gained respect for them as parents" above.

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