Sunday, June 5, 2016

Black vultures at Maysville, KY

(Taking a break from two number-intensive projects and a word-heavy one)

Back on June 2, when I went down to the Meldahl Locks and Dam for the power plant dedication ceremony and tour, I went through part of Maysville, KY, before heading down KY Route 8. Right below Maysville is the H.L. Spurlock Station power plant, and on the other side of the road from the power plant were these big black birds. They were black vultures, the kind rarely seen up here around Mile 310 of the Ohio River, although I have seen a live one and a dead juvenile.

Black vultures are different from the buzzards we normally see in my part of the Ohio Valley, which are turkey vultures. Black vultures are smaller and have smaller beaks. They lack the turkey vulture’s acute sense of smell, and unlike turkey vultures they will attack and kill small animals and even newborn livestock.

So why were these things hanging around the Spurlock power plant by the dozen? Apparently to catch the thermals from the smokestack and the cooling towers, if there are any. Or from all the coal, asphalt and concrete on the site, which would warm up before the vegetation around it. Here is part of the abstract from a scholarly article in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology, published by the Wilson Ornithological Society. (Link:

“(V)ultures use artificial thermals as a way to gain elevation during flight. The largest number of vultures was observed in (thermal power plants) near feeding sites and roosting areas. We recorded the largest concentration of vultures in the late afternoon. We observed an interaction effect between site and time, where (thermal power plants) near roost sites had more vultures early morning and late afternoon, while (thermal power plants) near feeding sites had more vultures at mid-day. Our results show that vultures intensively use (thermal power plants) to aid their flight, and this behavior is used mainly at those times under the lowest natural thermals and when the vultures are moving from feeding sites to roosts in the late afternoon.”

The early morning air was still a bit chill from overnight rain when I drove past, so these birds may have been waiting for a good time to get airborne.

I had to shoot these photos from my car window. I didn't know if black vultures were as shy around people as turkey vultures are, so I kept my distance.

I didn’t see any turkey vultures around this power plant. It could be they roost in a different spot, or they could have been scared away by the aggressive behavior of black vultures. There are two other coal-fired power plants along the Ohio River with a short distance of Maysville, but I did not see any vultures on the ground or in the air when I drove by them. Likewise I have not seen any around the coal- or gas-fired plants in the area where I live.

Why these birds congregate at this particular spot I just don’t know. But it does give a person reason to check out the site again when they’re in the Maysville area. That is, if a person is not repulsed by vultures but instead finds them interesting for whatever reason.