I was gonna call this post "Falling in love with turkey vultures...", but I realized that wasn't accurate. I've always loved them. As far back as I can remember, I've seen them soaring way, way up high, circling dramatically, wings spread wide, and all I could think was: glorious.
Apparently turkey vultures can soar about riding the thermals without flapping their wings for up to six hours. That seems like a super power to me.
Early on, I remember asking what that huge elegant bird was - some type of hawk? "No, dear, that's just a turkey vulture." Just. Just? How can something that magnificent be described as just anything? Why is it better to be a hawk than a vulture? Screw that noise. "But those HEADS!" a friend exclaimed, when I tried to explain my admiration. And I thought, you got a problem with bald critters? I've known a lot of really handsome bald men, and a few gorgeous bald women besides, so really, what's the issue with bald birds? Dude, expand your horizons.
Anyway. It's not surprising at all that a turkey vulture found his way into Pika's Peak early on. But I wanted to do the character justice in my drawings for the comic. There are lots of photos of turkey vultures online, but nothing beats a real life model. And I'm really lucky to live less than two miles from Briar Bush Nature Center where Ralph lives! Katie McAfee, Briar Bush's animal trainer and curator, generously agreed to spend a little time introducing me to Ralph on a cold February day. I spent the time taking pictures, and watching Ralph closely to try to get a sense of how he moves.
The first thing to know about Ralph is that he's shy. So I kept a respectful distance of about 6 or 8 feet.
This is one of my favorite photos from that day. I'm no expert on vulture body language, but to me, this reads as pulled in, skeptical and tentative, but still curious. And utterly adorable.
You can also see part of the injury to Ralph's right wing. He's unable to extend that wing, so he cannot fly. He's really lucky to have a home at Briar Bush with a trainer like Katie who makes sure that his environment is the right balance of comfortable and stimulating. Turkey vultures are really smart birds, and Katie makes sure he has everything he needs.
But! He can still extend his left wing - and when he does, it is absolutely breathtaking.
Oh my goodness, the elegance of those wings...I was trying to capture some of that in this panel:
The photo at the top of this post is one that Katie took, and it's the one I referred to most frequently for this panel:
I learned several really cool things about turkey vultures that day. Yes, they have bald heads - this is a matter of hygiene. They eat carrion, and this way, they're not getting bacteria from rotting meat stuck in feathers around their heads. But the skin on their heads and necks is really loose. This allows them to move the skin upwards and pull the feathers on their necks up over their heads when they are cold, like built in feathered hoodies! Compare the photo below with the one at the top of this post:
I asked Katie if there was anything in particular she wanted people to know about vultures, and she had this to say: "Vultures are far more than just 'ugly' consumers of roadkill, they are social, intelligent, curious troublemakers that play a vital role in the ecosystem."
I dug into their role in the ecosystem a bit more, because I was curious. And I discovered that "The acid in their stomachs is highly corrosive, facilitating the digestion of decomposing carcasses infected with diseases such as anthrax, cholera, botulinum toxin, and rabies that would be lethal to other scavengers." ( - Wildlife Research and Conservation) Which is to say that not only are vultures getting rid of a lot of dead bodies for us, they're also getting rid of a lot of deadly bacteria and diseases that would otherwise infect humans or other animals. The environment we live in is a lot cleaner and safer because of these wonderful birds.
I also know exactly why she put "ugly" in quotes. We both look at these magnificent birds with awe. "Ugly" is not part of the mix.
This picture is another one of my favorites. The way the line of his beak flows into a fold that wraps all the way around his head up behind his eye looks like some kind of huge grin to me. It's not, it's just the way his anatomy works, but it's delightful and charming. And he is a bold, elegant figure.
Of all the turkey vulture illustrations I've done for Pika's Peak, the one I put the most work into, and of which I'm the most proud, is definitely for the splash page - you can see that here, and if you've missed anything, check out the comic from the beginning here.
By the way, this is the kind of post that folks who support the comic at $2 a month get every week. I figured I'd make this one public because Ralph is an important member of the community and I wanted folks to be able to share this if they're so inclined. But if you like what you're reading and would like more, please consider becoming a patron!
I've had so much fun drawing this character. Huge thanks to Ralph the turkey vulture for being such an excellent model, and to Katie McAfee of Briar Bush Nature Center for making it all possible! I'll wrap this up with my favorite photo of both of them, taken by Melissa Eldridge of Briar Bush:
P.S. - I just found out Ralph has his own Facebook page - and it's pure awesome. Lots of great photos, videos, and more. Go have a look! :-D