Turkey Vulture

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Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura

    Class: Aves

The Turkey Vulture is also called turkey buzzard or just buzzard. The Turkey Vulture received its name from the resemblance of the adult's bald red head and its dark plumage to that of the male Wild Turkey. Turkey vultures are about 24 to 32 inches (6281 cm) long. They have broad wings with a wingspan of 6372 inches (160183 cm) around 6 feet, they have long "fingers" at their wingtips. They weigh between 1.8 to 5.1 pounds (0.8 to 2.3 kg) averaging around 5 pounds. The females are slightly larger but otherwise they are the same in plumage and coloring. They are smaller than an eagle and larger than the Red-tailed Hawk.
Plumage & Flight: The body feathers are mostly brownish-black, but the flight feathers on the wings appear to be silvery-gray beneath, contrasting with the darker wing linings. Feathers are blackish in harsh light, but brownish plumage tone is revealed at close range. Underneath, the silvery secondaries contrast with the black primaries and wing coverts, giving a two-toned look to the wing. Turkey Vultures undergo a gradual molt in late winter to early spring which can last until early autumn. The young have a gray head with a black beak tip; the colors change to those of the adult as the bird matures. Juveniles are similar to adults, but with browner plumage and dark head and bill. There are also White Turkey Vultures (Leucistic not albino).

In flight the silvery gray flight feathers contrast with otherwise dark plumage and a proportionately long tail extending past their toe tips. The undersides of the wings are two-toned: on the front of the wing the color appears black or dark brown, and the trailing edge appears silver or whitish. When soaring, Turkey Vultures hold their wings slightly raised, making a V when seen head-on and rock back and forth when soaring, especially in strong winds. The wobbly rocking, as well as the dihedral pattern, distinguishes the Turkey Vulture in flight from other large, soaring birds. They use thermals to move through the air, flapping the wings infrequently. Active flight is labored. Perched, adult Turkey Vultures are unmistakable, with their featherless, red heads. A turkey vulture standing on the ground can, at a distance, resemble a wild turkey. They are the easiest to see on sunny mornings as they soar and glide with consummate ease. In colder weather and at night they roost in trees, on rocks, poles, towers, dead trees, fence posts and other high secluded spots. They often perch or stand with a spread-winged stance called the "horaltic pose". The Turkey Vulture is awkward on the ground with an ungainly, hopping walk. It requires a great deal of effort to take flight, flapping its wings while pushing off the ground and hopping with its feet.

They are very graceful, many even say beautiful, in flight, and can soar for hours without flapping their wings. Their flapping, when it occurs, appears laborious and is usually used on take-offs and before landings. The turkey vulture is one of the most skilled soarers among the North American birds. It migrates over North and South America with minimal energy output. Birds that breed in British Columbia, Canada may winter as far south as Venezuela, South America. Vultures begin flying generally a few hours after sunrise, after the morning air has warmed. Turkey vultures frequently circle and gain altitude on pockets of rising warm air, or thermals. When they reach the top of the thermal, they glide across the sky at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, gradually losing altitude all the while. When they need to gain more altitude, they locate another thermal and so begins another sequences of circling, rising, and then gliding. Turkey vultures can cover many miles going from thermal to thermal without ever needing to flap.

The adult's head is small in proportion to its body and is red in color with few to no feathers, except for a thin covering of down and looks bald. There is an important purpose to the vulture's bald head. When the vulture is eating carrion, it must often stick its head inside the carcass to reach the meat. A feathery head would capture unwanted pieces of the vulture's meal. The bald head helps reduce feather contamination when feeding on carrion.

They have a relatively short, hooked, ivory-colored beak. The irises of the eyes are gray-brown; legs and feet are pink-skinned, although typically stained white. The eye has a single incomplete row of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on the lower lid.

The two front toes of the foot are long and have small webs at their bases. Tracks are large, around 5 inches in length and 4 inches wide, including the claw marks. The toes are arranged in the classic, anisodactyl pattern. The feet are flat, relatively weak, and poorly adapted to grasping; the talons are also not designed for grasping, as they are relatively blunt. In flight, the tail is long, slim and light in color. The nostrils are not divided by a septum, but rather are perforate. From the side one an see through the beak.
Turkey Vultures Lack a syrinx, the vocal organ (voice box) of birds, and thus have limited vocalization capabilities. They utter grunts or low hisses. They usually hiss when they feel threatened. Grunts are commonly heard from hungry young, and adults in their courtship display. The Turkey Vultures night-time body temperature is lower than the day time temp. They can live in captivity up to 37 years and in the wild about 16.

Habitat and Range

The Turkey Vulture ranges from southern Canada to Cape Horn in South America and are vagrant to Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Newfoundland. They are the most widespread vulture in North America. They inhabit a variety of open and semi-open areas, including subtropical forests, pastures, grasslands, wetlands, shrublands, pastures, foothills and deserts. Three subspecies are found in North America with only a few minor differences in size and overall tone separating them. Most commonly found in relatively open areas which provide nearby woods for nesting and generally avoid heavily forested areas. Live Year-round in southern United States, northern birds may migrate as far south as South America. Migrating flocks can number in the thousands.


The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger and feeds mainly on carrion from small mammals to large grazers. Including wild and domestic carrion, preferring those recently dead, and avoiding carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction. It is unique among other vultures in that it finds carrion by smell as well as by sight. It uses its keen sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gases (ethyl mercaptan) produced by the beginnings of the process of decay in dead animals. The part of its brain responsible for processing smells is particularly large, compared to other birds. With this heightened ability to detect odors (a few parts per trillion) allows it to find dead animals below a forest canopy. King Vultures, Black Vultures and condors, which lack the ability to smell carrion may follow the Turkey Vulture to carcasses.
Turkey Vultures cannot tear the tough hides of larger animals on its own, sometimes these other birds will tear carcasses for them or they will wait for their meal to soften in order to pierce the skin. They are deft foragers, targeting the softest bits first and are even known to leave aside the scent glands of dead skunks. These vultures cannot lift or carry food with their feet, they can only step on their food to hold it in place while eating. Turkey Vultures also feed on plant matter, shoreline vegetation, pumpkin and other crops, live insects and other invertebrates, palm fruit, grapes, juniper berries, and feces of coyote and sea lion. It also will feed on fish or insects which have become stranded in shallow water. Such as mussels, shrimp, grasshoppers and mayflies. Also wild goose eggs as well as birthing sheep that were too weak to stand up, trapped, extremely weak, or helpless prey, such as ruffed grouse chicks and trapped or anesthetized birds and even reptiles.
The Turkey Vulture can often be seen along roadsides feeding on roadkill, or near bodies of water, feeding on washed-up fish. The Turkey Vulture is gregarious and roosts in large community groups, breaking away to forage independently during the day. Several hundred vultures may roost communally in groups which sometimes even include Black Vultures. Turkey vultures not only find food individually when foraging, but also may notice when other vultures in flight begin to descend to food and then follow those vultures to the food source. At carcasses, several Turkey Vultures may gather but typically only one feeds at a time, chasing the others off and making them wait their turn. Despite their size, Turkey Vultures are often driven off by smaller Black Vultures, Crested Caracaras, Zone-tailed Hawks, and even smaller birds such as crows.

Behavior & Status

The Turkey Vulture has few natural predators. Adult, immature and fledging vultures may fall prey to golden eagles, bald eagles and great horned owls, while eggs and nestlings may be preyed on by mammals such as raccoons, opossum and foxes. Other threats include accidental trapping, collisions with cars and electrocution. The vulture is protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (US), the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds (Canada) and the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds and Game Mammals (Mexico). They can be fed fresh meat, and younger birds will gorge themselves if given the opportunity. It is estimated there are over 4,000,000 Turkey Vultures.
The primary form of defense is regurgitating semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance which deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest. These powerful stomach acids will also sting if the predator is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes. In some cases, the vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to take flight to flee from a potential predator.
The turkey vulture often directs its urine right onto its legs, causing a white uric acid to streak the legs. This process, known as urohydrosis, serves two very important purposes. On warm days, wetting the legs cools the vulture as the urine evaporates. The vulture does not sweat. In addition, this urine contains strong acids from the vulture's digestive system, which may kill any bacteria that remain on the bird's legs from stepping in its meal. The droppings produced by Turkey Vultures and other vultures can harm or kill trees and other vegetation. Turkey Vultures are majestic but unsteady soarers. Their teetering flight with very few wingbeats is characteristic. Look for them gliding relatively low to the ground, sniffing for carrion, or else riding thermals up to higher vantage points. They may soar in small groups and roost in larger numbers. You may also see them on the ground in small groups, huddled around roadkill or dumpsters.


The breeding season of the Turkey Vulture varies according to latitude. In the southern United States, it commences in March, peaks in April to May, and continues into June. In more northerly latitudes, the season starts later and extends into August. One clutch and usually two chicks a year.

Courtship rituals of the Turkey Vulture involve several individuals gathering in a circle, where they perform hopping movements around the perimeter of the circle with wings partially spread. In the air, one bird closely follows another, one bird will lead the other through twisting, turning, diving and flapping flights for a minute or so, repeated over periods as long as 3 hours. Turkey Vultures form long-term bonds.

Though Turkey Vultures sometimes nest in caves, they generally do not enter them except during the breeding season. A choice nest site is cooler than the surrounding area by 13 degrees or more and will resemble a cave atmosphere. Some have been found in abandoned barns, sheds, an abandoned car and old buildings. But typically nest in hollow trees, logs, cliffs, on the ground in dense thickets or sheltered areas, rock crevices, burrows, ledges, abandoned hawk or heron nests. They build little or no traditional nest but rather scratch out an indentation and the eggs are laid on the bare surface.

One to three eggs are laid, usually two. The eggs are cream-colored, with brown or lavender spots around their larger end. Around three inches in length and two inches wide. Both parents incubate the eggs, and the young hatch after 28 to 41 days. The chicks are blind and helpless at birth. They are covered in pure white down, and have dark grey faces. Once hatched, the nestlings are brooded almost continuously for the first five days. The male and female take turns brooding the young, allowing one parent to collect food that it then regurgitates for the young. When adults are threatened while nesting, they may flee, or they may regurgitate on the intruder or feign death. If the chicks are threatened in the nest, they defend themselves by hissing and regurgitating.

The young first begin to fly at about nine to ten weeks. The fledging process is gradual and varies depending on nest location. Birds fledging from lower sites have the luxury of taking short practice flights for a few days before taking extended flights. The first flight of young birds that hatch in exposed or elevated nests will generally be extended, since short hops are sometimes too risky for them. Once the young begin to fly, they generally spend 1 to 3 more weeks at the nest site. Newly fledged vultures still have gray heads ,instead of red, and can be confused with the black vulture, from a distance. By the time a turkey vulture is one year old their head has become mostly red. Family groups will remain together until fall.

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