SYCAMORE – Vinnie doesn’t realize he’s a vulture.
For the past 23 years, the barn at Oaken Acres Wildlife Center has been home to a special resident. He’s a turkey vulture who has imprinted onto humans, said Kathy Stelford, founder and president of the wildlife center.
As a result, each attempt to release Vinnie back into the wild has met with failure, even when birds of his own kind are flying overhead.
“He would leave for a day or two with them, but he’d come back,” Stelford said. “He doesn’t identify with them.”
There seems to be more of Vinnie’s kind in the area lately. Local environment experts have noticed more turkey vultures in DeKalb County during the past five to 10 years, although it’s unclear why.
“Each year now, we’ve seen more and more vultures in the area,” Stelford said. “We have a constant presence of vultures from the end of March to November, which didn’t used to happen.”
Turkey vultures are carrion birds native to North America that eat dead animal carcasses. The birds migrate during the year, going north to breed and then flying south during the winter.
Turkey vultures have bare red heads with no feathers on them. Peggy Doty, an educator with the University of Illinois Extension program, said the lack of plumage allows the sun to bake off any bacteria the birds might have been exposed to when feeding.
The birds’ bodies are black with gray wings. When soaring, the vulture bends its wings in a V shape. Brian Kraskiewicz, an ecologist with the DeKalb County Forest Preserve, said this is different from hawks and eagles, which soar with their wings spread wide.
Doty has a couple of theories about the increased sightings of turkey vultures. Doty said she thinks people are more aware of their surrounding environment after a major event, like the drought that struck most of the county in 2012.
“What I’ve noticed is that I am getting calls about everything this year,” Doty said, adding that she’s also been getting more calls about hummingbirds.
Doty’s other theory also is drought-related. Turkey vultures build their nests around rocky areas, which can wash away during a rainstorm. Last year’s drought would not only have preserved more of those nests, it also would have killed more animals, making food more abundant for vultures.
“It could be any one of those, and people notice them more,” Doty said. “We aren’t all paying attention unless there’s a major environmental event.”
In the meantime, Vinnie the vulture will stay right where he is. He has his own cage in the Oaken Acres barn, and he gets excited whenever the staff brings him a new carcass on which to feast. Stelford added that’s she not even sure what gender Vinnie is – they’ve never checked.
Vinnie does provide other comic relief, Stelford said, like when he does his mating dance for humans, bobbing his bald, red head and stomping his feet.
“To him, I am like at least a vision of a mate with him,” Stelford said. “He doesn’t get along with other vultures because he doesn’t identify with them.”
But Stelford said she finds it sad that Vinnie can’t be with his own kind. He’s very comfortable around humans, sometimes pecking at their shoelaces.
“Someone is not going to think its funny, and could hurt him,” Stelford said. “He can’t be out in the wild, which is a shame because he’s a perfect specimen.”