Carrion On

San Juan Capistrano has nothing on us. Sure, they've got their wimpy little swallows choking up the trees every year, but we here in the Valley can witness the wonder and majesty of the annual return of the mighty Cathartes Aura. That's right folks -- the turkey vultures are returning to Arizona.

Just about the time the Cactus League is unpacking and the winter visitors are packing, the turkey vultures drift into Arizona. Riding thermal air currents on their six-foot wing spans, they migrate north from their winter roosts, looking for heat. They like heat, though not because they enjoy being hot, mind you -- no creature that has to urinate on itself to stay cool actually likes to be hot. No, they like heat because heat makes things die, and turkey vultures like dead things.

Now, where's the best place to see and learn about these majestic eaters of the dead? At the annual "Welcome Back Buzzards Day" on Saturday, March 31, at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. The arboretum, about three miles west of the town of Superior, is home to a resident flock of about 100 vultures. On that Saturday, the arboretum will open at 7 a.m. so vulture watchers can get in to see the birds roosting in the Eucalyptus trees and sunning themselves on Magma Ridge.

As the morning air warms and the thermal currents begin to rise, the great black birds will take wing in an impressive aerial display, followed by cake and refreshments. For the humans, that is. The arboretum's mascot, Hairball Harry, will be on hand to entertain the kids, along with "Ed the Educational Turkey Vulture" from the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center. Staff members from the wildlife center will accompany Ed to answer your questions about vultures and other desert birds.

According to Muriel Kremb, the volunteer education coordinator for the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center, Ed, whose gender is actually open to debate, was struck by a car when just a juvenile and was brought to the center. "His wing never healed correctly, so he has been with us for the past four years. Ed provides a rare opportunity to see a turkey vulture up close and personal." You might not want to get too close, as turkey vultures tend to vomit on you when they feel threatened. "Ed definitely has a personality all his own," says Kremb. "He has his good days and bad days."

Also on display from the rehab center will be a pair of kestrels, a peregrine falcon, a great horned owl, a red-tailed hawk and a black-crowned night heron. Wildlife rehabilitators, their animals and educational displays can be viewed at the visitor center until 3 p.m.

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James Ward