What’s that? Up in the sky? A plane, a pterodactyl? Nope, it’s just a really, really big bird.
But it doesn’t look like the Big Bird from Sesame Street, so what kind of bird is it?!
Southwest Virginia has many gorgeous, large birds which can be easily seen and identified from a distance, whether across a pond or up in the sky from the comfort of your driver’s seat. (But don’t forget to watch the road!) This slideshow will help you get to know some of the area’s larger fine-feathered friends.
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If you’ve seen a huge, dark bird soaring in the sky, it’s probably a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura).
Though often mistaken for a “hawk”, the turkey vulture (also called turkey buzzard or just “buzzard”), in fact, is much larger than any hawk in this area, with a wingspan stretching a full six feet.
Turkey vultures are scavengers, soaring through the sky and using their excellent sense of smell to detect rotting meat. By feeding on dead animals (carrion), turkey vultures perform a great service; they recycle road kill!
When one or more vultures (a group of 12 or more is called a “kettle”) is seen soaring in circles in the sky, climbing higher and higher, the birds are actually coasting on an updraft of warm air called a thermal. This way they get a free ride high into the sky.
The turkey vulture is easily distinguished from its cousin, the black vulture (the next bird in the list) when flying because a) the turkey vulture holds its wings in a slight V shape and b) the underwings of the turkey vulture are white on the posterior half from body to wingtip. Closer up, the turkey vulture is known for its red, turkey-like face – hence its name!
The southern vulture (Coragyps stratus) is also called a black vulture. With a wingspan of five and a half feet, it is only slightly smaller than its red-faced cousin, the turkey vulture.
Most often seen soaring in the sky or roosting with many other southern vultures in a large tree or on a radio tower, this vulture is also a carrion eater. When not feeding on rotting flesh, however, it may also forage at garbage dumps or capture and eat newborn animals.
Like the turkey vulture, it soars on rising hot air pockets or “thermals”, coasting upward to fly high in the sky, searching for food by sense of smell. The black vulture’s dinner keeps the roads and wild lands free of stinky, dead meat.
The southern vulture is easily distinguished from the turkey vulture by a) wings held perfectly flat when flying, b) underwings that are all black except for white “hands”, and, of course, a black head instead of a bright red one.
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
The red-tailed hawk is the largest of the hawks resident in southwest Virginia, with a wingspan of four and a half feet.
This hawk is named for its red-tail, of course, but that tail is not always immediately visible if you first see the hawk sitting on a tree branch or fence post, which is where they spend most of their time.
Hawks do not usually soar. If something is soaring high in the sky or rising on a thermal, its likely a vulture and not a hawk.
Hawks hunt live prey with their excellent eyesight, waiting quietly on a high perch, and swooping down on small mammals, other birds, and reptiles. when they dart through the air or undergrowth. This hawk can also hover in mid-air for short periods and dive down at prey, reaching speeds up to 120 mph in the dive.
With a wingspan of three to four feet, the red-shouldered hawk (buteo lineatus) is just a bit smaller than its cousin, the red-tailed hawk.
When hunting in the forest, the red-shouldered hawk also sits in trees, watching for its small mammal, bird, or reptile prey to move, then swoops down to catch and eat the unlucky little beast. In fields and meadows, however, this hawk will also fly low over the tops of the plants to surprise its prey into moving, then snatch it up.
This hawk can occasionally be seen soaring, but that happens usually during courtship, when a pair will soar together and perform a variety of aerobatic and tumbling acts.
Red-shouldered hawks prefer hardwood forest habitat, and favor wetter habitats as well, so they’re more likely to be found near waterbodies or in hardwood swamp areas.
The American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is another commonly seen large bird flying in southwest Virginia skies.
The “common crow” is just that – very common. And thank goodness for that, because it’s another scavenger, cleaning the roadways of squashed mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects more quickly than any municipal crew could hope to do the same.
However, crows are actually omnivorous: they’ll eat anything, including seeds, fruits, mollusks, earthworms, eggs, and much more. A particular fondness for corn led farmers to invent the “scarecrow” to keep the foraging black birds out of their fields.
Crows are social birds and incredibly intelligent, too. A group of crows (four or more) is called a “murder” – that scarecrow had better watch out!
The sight of a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) and the sound of its honking call bring automatic thoughts of fall and migration, when large flocks of geese fly in a V formation, migrating.
However, Canada geese are year round residents in southwest Virginia. They can be seen living and nesting on local ponds and lakes.
Canada geese are an excellent example of a species that has flourished despite and, in fact, due to human-made changes in the landscape. Agricultural areas and community-use ponds and green areas make great habitat for these geese and children bearing breadcrumbs are an outstanding food source. (Though the adult geese will raise their wings, hiss, and even chase humans – especially those with dogs – away when their goslings are young.)
Often grumbled about due to their large, squishy droppings left on pathways and green areas, Canada geese are considered a nuisance species and can be removed from areas through nest and egg destruction after registration with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Those wishing to take advantage of breadcrumb-flavored goose meat for fine fall and winter meals can start hunting them in September each year (and give goose down pillows as holiday gifts).
Great Blue Heron
The great blue heron is the stately bird of streams, rivers, and wetlands. When flying, it’s six and a half foot wings flap slowly and methodically through the sky; it looks too big to fly!
Standing still and looking for prey at water’s edge or in the shallows, the great blue heron is four and a half feet of blue-grey grace.
It hunts for large insects, fish, and crustaceans in clear water, using its long, sharp beak to spear its prey.
The great blue heron will usually fly away when humans approach too closely, but many have learn to become a fisherman’s friend (all the easier to steal their catch). Great blue herons are tough to scare away from fishing piers or hotspots – they’re likely to just make a lazy, circular flight back to their original post.
The wild turkey (Meleagros gallopavo) is an agile flier despite its weight of up to 24 pounds.
A resident of the woodlands, the wild turkey can, according to the National Wild Turkey Federation, run at speeds up to 25 mph and can fly at speeds up to 55 mph.
They have excellent vision during the day and, hence, feel safe in open areas for feeding and nesting, but poor night vision brings them back to the forest to roost in trees at night.
Turkeys feed on berries, nuts, acorns, insects, and even small reptiles. Those wishing to celebrate a true pioneer Thanksgiving had better prepare early – tasty wild turkeys come covered with five to six thousand feathers that must be plucked!
A person may be lucky enough to see a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) flying through the night, but is almost certain not to hear it coming. The feathers in the owl’s four foot wings have evolved over millennia to be practically silent in flight.
This silent flight helps owls to snatch their prey with a minimum of resistance. This is a very good thing for humans, too, as great horned owls are the only known regular predator of skunks.
Great-horned owls are also important predators for many of the large bird species, including crows, osprey, and even other owls. Crows will “mob” great-horned owls, flying around them in a sort of acrobatic aerial warfare, screaming and calling until the harassed owl finally leaves the area.
Another silent night flyer, the barred owl (Strix varia) stretches its four-foot wings over stream, river, lake, and marsh.
Naturalists liken its low call to the phrase “Who? Whooo? Who cooks for you?”
Barred owls are very loyal to their home territory; they do not migrate and will stay relatively near where they hatched their entire lives. The only exception to this rule is when a great-horned owl moves into the neighborhood. Great-horned owls are predators of the barred owl and will eat both adult birds and owlets.
Barred owls themselves prey on all sorts of small animals, from chipmunks and voles to rabbits and birds (as large as grouse), not to mention frogs, lizards, snakes, and fish. A barred owl simply perches on a branch overhanging the water, watches, waits, then drops down to snatch a fish who came too near the surface.
Barred owl fossils estimated to be 11,000 years old have been found in Tennessee.