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Turkey Vulture

Cathartes aura ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: CATHARTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

If you’ve gone looking for raptors on a clear day, your heart has probably leaped at the sight of a large, soaring bird in the distance– perhaps an eagle or osprey. But if it's soaring with its wings raised in a V and making wobbly circles, it's likely a Turkey Vulture. These birds ride thermals in the sky and use their keen sense of smell to find fresh carcasses. They are a consummate scavenger, cleaning up the countryside one bite of their sharply hooked bill at a time, and never mussing a feather on their bald heads.

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Keys to identification Help

Hawklike
Hawklike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Turkey Vultures are large dark birds with long, broad wings. Bigger than other raptors except eagles and condors, they have long "fingers" at their wingtips and long tails that extend past their toe tips in flight. When soaring, Turkey Vultures hold their wings slightly raised, making a ‘V’ when seen head-on.

  • Color Pattern

    Turkey Vultures appear black from a distance but up close are dark brown with a featherless red head and pale bill. While most of their body and forewing are dark, the undersides of the flight feathers (along the trailing edge and wingtips) are paler, giving a two-toned appearance.

  • Behavior

    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.

  • Habitat

    Turkey Vultures are common around open areas such as roadsides, suburbs, farm fields, countryside, and food sources such as landfills, trash heaps, and construction sites. On sunny days, look for them aloft as early as 9 a.m.; in colder weather and at night they roost on poles, towers, dead trees, and fence posts.

Range Map Help

Turkey Vulture Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult
    • Very large, long-winged raptor
    • Mostly dark with paler brown on wings
    • Bright red, unfeathered head
    • Sharply hooked white bill
    • © jon, Padilla Bay, Anacortes, Washington, May 2011
  • Adult in flight

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult in flight
    • Long, broad wings
    • Wings two-toned white and black underneath
    • In flight, wings often bent and held up at "v"-shaped angle
    • Pinkish-red unfeathered head with white bill
    • © Ned Harris, Winkelman, Arizona, May 2010
  • Adult sunning

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult sunning
    • Wings often held open when perched
    • Long, broad wings
    • Bare, reddish-pink head
    • Mostly black and dark brown
    • © Jay Paredes, Loxahatchee NWR, Florida, May 2009
  • Immature

    Turkey Vulture

    Immature
    • Immature has dark gray unfeathered head
    • Dark throughout with golden-brown edges on wings
    • Sharply hooked bill
    • © Lois Manowitz, Pena Blanca Lake, Nogales, Arizona, September 2010
  • Adult in flight

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult in flight
    • Long, broad wings
    • Two-toned black and white underneath
    • Obvious separated "fingers" at tips of wings
    • © striatus, Maryland, October 2010
  • Adult sunning

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult sunning
    • Often seen sunning with wings spread, when perched
    • Long, dark wings with golden-brown scalloping
    • Pinkish-red unfeathered head
    • Bright white, hooked bill
    • © Ned Harris, Tucson, Arizona, May 2010
  • Flock

    Turkey Vulture

    Flock
    • Often seen soaring together in large groups
    • Long, broad wings "bent" or held up at an angle
    • Wings two-toned underneath
    • © Christopher L. Wood, Veracruz, Mexico, October 2007
  • Adult

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult
    • Unfeathered pinkish-red head
    • Bright white bill sharply hooked
    • Mostly dark body
    • © Robinsegg, Mountain Dell, Utah, April 2007
  • Adult

    Turkey Vulture

    Adult
    • Large-bodied and long-winged raptor
    • Mostly dark with golden-brown edges on wing coverts
    • Unfeathered, pinkish-red head
    • Bright white hooked bill
    • © bmse, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, California, November 2010

Similar Species

  • Adult in flight

    Black Vulture

    Adult in flight
    • Shorter wings and tail than Turkey Vulture
    • Underwings mostly dark except for pale white wing-tips
    • Dark gray/black head
    • © Kaustubh Deshpande, Arlington, Texas, May 2009
  • Adult

    Black Vulture

    Adult
    • Dark gray, unfeathered head
    • Jet black body
    • Dark, hooked bill with pale gray tip
    • Shorter wings than Turkey Vulture
    • © Greg Page, Falls of the Ohio State Park, Indiana, October 2009
  • Adult Turkey and Black Vultures

    Black Vulture

    Adult Turkey and Black Vultures
    • Turkey Vulture on left with pinkish-red head, white bill, and golden-brown edges on wing feathers
    • Black Vulture on right with gray head, dark bill, and jet black wings
    • © Paul Pruitt, Grass Pond Colony, Texas, April 2011
  • Adult in flight

    Zone-tailed Hawk

    Adult in flight
    • Very similar to Turkey Vulture in flight
    • Wings two-toned but pale area is heavily barred
    • White and black barred tail
    • Fully feathered head with black-tipped yellow bill
    • © Greg Page, Brewster County, Texas, September 2010
  • Immature in flight

    Golden Eagle

    Immature in flight
    • Similar to Turkey Vulture but wings are held flat in flight
    • Mostly dark underneath, but immature has white patches on middle of wings and on tail
    • Fully-feathered golden-brown head
    • Yellow bill
    • © dwaynejava, Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada, November 2010
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Similar in flight shape to Turkey Vulture, but smaller
    • Mostly whitish underneath with dark markings acros breast
    • Wings shorter and broader than in Turkey Vulture
    • © ashockenberry, Ontario, Canada, September 2008

Similar Species

Black Vultures have much shorter tails, ending at the toe tips, and they hold their wings nearly flat, unlike a Turkey Vulture’s V-shaped posture. Black Vultures have whitish outer primaries that form a white star near the wingtip, and the rest of the wing is jet black, not two-toned like Turkey Vultures. Red-tailed Hawks are so common over the range of the Turkey Vulture that you are bound to occasionally confuse the two when you see them at distance. Red-tailed Hawks are usually pale below, with shorter tails and shorter, broader wings that they hold flat as they soar. Bald Eagles can have a similar motley dark upperwing and back pattern, but they have feathers on the head, soar steadily on flat wings, and lack the clean, two-toned underwing. Golden Eagles raise their wings slightly in flight, but are larger and do not teeter or wobble as they soar; they also lack the two-toned underwing. Zone-tailed Hawks of the southwestern U.S. are similarly shaped and fly with a similar style, but they have light bands in the tail, a larger, fully feathered head, and bright-yellow feet.

Backyard Tips

Turkey Vultures are accustomed to living near humans and snacking off of our leavings. You will often see them in farm fields or hanging out next to the road. However, they are not likely to be in your backyard unless something has died or else you have a very large backyard.

Find This Bird

The most common time to see a Turkey Vulture is while driving, so look along the sides of highways and in the sky over open countryside. When hiking or traveling in hilly or mountainous areas, keep your eyes peeled for vultures. Sudden changes in topography allow for updrafts that the birds use to carry them into the sky.

You Might Also Like

Vultures Riding North: Spring 2011 Living Bird magazine

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