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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.

Birds of North America Online
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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
25.2–31.9 in
64–81 cm
Wingspan
66.9–70.1 in
170–178 cm
Weight
70.5 oz
2000 g
Relative Size
Smaller than an eagle; larger than a Red-tailed Hawk
Other Names
  • Urubu à tête rouge, Vautour (French)
  • Zopilote Aura, Aura cabecirroja (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Turkey Vulture uses its sense of smell to locate carrion. The part of its brain responsible for processing smells is particularly large, compared to other birds. Its heightened ability to detect odors—it can detect just a few parts per trillion—allows it to find dead animals below a forest canopy.
  • The Turkey Vulture maintains stability and lift at low altitudes by holding its wings up in a slight dihedral (V-shape) and teetering from side to side while flying. It flies low to the ground to pick up the scent of dead animals.
  • Vultures in the Americas look a lot like the vultures in Europe, Asia, and Africa, with broad wings, bare heads, and the habit of eating dead meat. But surprisingly, they're in different taxonomic families, meaning they're not particularly closely related. They evolved many of the same features as they exploited the same kinds of resources in different parts of the planet. This process is known as convergent evolution.
  • Not everyone sees vultures as a creepy harbinger of death—many see them as sacred for their cleanup role. Tibetan Buddhists practice “sky burials,” where animals, usually vultures, consume their dead. Similarly, Zoroastrians offer their dead to be consumed by vultures on a raised platform, called a dakhma. They regard vultures are precious animals that release the soul from the body. However, in parts of urban India, where vultures have become scarce because of accidental poisoning by a livestock anti-inflammatory drug, not enough vultures remain to meet the demand and some people have turned to burial.
  • The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. Its scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”
  • In cowboy movies the bad guy usually threatens to leave the hero in the desert for the buzzards, meaning the vultures. Although buzzard is a colloquial term for vulture in the U.S., the same word applies to several hawks in Europe. In fact, the Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) of Europe is the same species as the Rough-legged Hawk of North America.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Look for Turkey Vultures as they cruise open areas including mixed farmland, forest, and rangeland. They are particularly noticeable along roadsides and at landfills. At night, they roost in trees, on rocks, and other high secluded spots.

Food


Carrion

Turkey Vultures eat carrion, which they find largely by their excellent sense of smell. Mostly they eat mammals but are not above snacking on reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish, and even invertebrates. They prefer freshly dead animals, but often have to 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. Thankfully for them, vultures appear to have excellent immune systems, happily feasting on carcasses without contracting botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella. Unlike their Black Vulture relatives, Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–3 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2.6–3 in
6.5–7.5 cm
Egg Width
1.7–2.1 in
4.4–5.3 cm
Incubation Period
28–40 days
Nestling Period
60–84 days
Egg Description
Creamy white tinged with gray, blue, or green, and spotted with purple to brown.
Condition at Hatching
Downy, often blind, and defenseless beyond a quiet hiss.
Nest Description

Turkey Vultures don’t build full nests. They may scrape out a spot in the soil or leaf litter, pull aside obstacles, or arrange scraps of vegetation or rotting wood. Once found, many of these nest sites may be used repeatedly for a decade or more.

Nest Placement

Cliff

Turkey Vultures nest in rock crevices, caves, ledges, thickets, mammal burrows and hollow logs, fallen trees, abandoned hawk or heron nests, and abandoned buildings. These nest sites are typically much cooler (by 13°F or more) than surroundings, and isolated from human traffic or disturbance. While they often feed near humans, Turkey Vultures prefer to nest far away from civilization.

Behavior


Soaring

The Turkey Vulture's distinctive slow, teetering flight style probably helps the bird soar at low altitudes, where it is best able to use its nose to find carrion. At other times they may soar high on thermals and form mixed flocks or kettles. On the ground they move with ungainly hops and are less agile than Black Vultures. Often, especially in the morning, they can be seen standing erect, wings spread in the sun, presumably to warm up, cool off, or dry off. Outside of the breeding season, Turkey Vultures form roosts of dozens to a hundred individuals. When Turkey Vultures court, pairs perform a "follow flight" display where one bird leads the other through twisting, turning, and flapping flights for a minute or so, repeated over periods as long as 3 hours. Migrating flocks can number in the thousands. 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 other species.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Turkey Vultures have been increasing in number across North America since the 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 18 million with 28 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 9 percent in Mexico, and 1 percent breeding in Canada. Turkey Vultures were threatened by side-effects of the pesticide DDT. Today they are among the most common large carnivorous birds in North America. However, because they live on rotting meat, like California Condors, they can fall victim to poisons or lead in dead animals. The main concern is lead shot that ends up in carcasses or gut piles left by hunters. The animals eat the shot and eventually suffer lead poisoning. Other threats include trapping and killing due to erroneous fears that they spread disease. Far from it, vultures actually reduce the spread of disease.

Credits

Range Map Help

Turkey Vulture Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to long-distance migrant. Some Turkey Vultures in the southern United States are year-round residents. Birds in the northeast migrate short distances southward, to North Carolina through Louisiana. Western birds migrate much farther, with large numbers (more than a million) moving through Central America and in some cases as far as Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador.

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

Information Seekers: What do vultures have to gain from roosting? Autumn 2011 Living Bird magazine