By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

I'm constantly being accused of having a fascination with turkey vultures -- those majestic but ugly-as-sin birds that like to feed on dead flesh.

And perhaps that's true, considering that I seem to come back from a venture outdoors with a photo or two of a turkey vulture doing something or another of interest.

If only they weren't so big with featherless heads and necks and such big beaks -- the better to dive into dead, rotting flesh with -- they wouldn't have much fascination.

But they are hulking creatures, 25 to 32 inches long, with a wingspan of around 6 feet. They weigh in at about 6 pounds.

They have a face that even a mother would struggle to love, and yet they are key players in the circle of life, consuming that which has fallen prey to something else.

But hey, there's even a non profit Turkey Vulture Society.

They are one of the few birds that are able to use their sense of smell to find food.

We humans, of course, are also known to find dead, rotting flesh, but generally we head the other way. Turkey vultures head that direction, partaking in even the most disgusting of feasts, although if truth be known, they'd rather dine on the freshly dead than the bloated remains of the long dead.

To show how disgusting they can be, I only have to remember veterinarian Jessica Braun preparing to look at a turkey vulture that was brought to her as part of her rehabilitation efforts at Western Plains Animal Refuge.

Naturally, she picked up gloves to protect her hands, but then she paused, and put on a smock of sorts, noting that perhaps she should be prepared. The bird, so it seems, had been snacking on a skunk when it was found.

All I could think of was how foul something like that could smell.

That reminded me of the time Charles Hille offered a close-up tour of a young vulture, a not-yet-capable-of-flying young.

Its only defense mechanism? Vomiting.

And let me tell you, even from several feet away, that bird surely was safe from any predator that I'm aware of.

I'm not even sure a T. rex, with its marble-sized brain, would want to tangle with that puke.

All this is the long way around getting to my point.

It is easy to tell that I have something of a fascination with the birds.

So imagine what was going through my mind as I drove home one dreary afternoon, only to spot a kettle of vultures, as a group of vultures circling in the air is called.

But as I got closer, there were more.

A whole venue.

As near as I could count, there were 11 or 12 vultures circling the Corn household.

While that concerned me, I knew I didn't have any critters on the place that might have died unexpectedly and were being served up on a dinner plate for the birds.

So I drove in, snapping picture after picture.

Finally, they settled in a tree nearby, allowing me to get closer and closer.

That's when it dawned on me that they must be laying low, what with the dreary weather.

Be that as it may, the vultures came home to roost and I thank them for the chance to get close, but not so close that they were able to toss their cookies -- or whatever they had consumed -- my way.

As fascinating as they are, I'll stay at arm's length, thank you very much.