- ORDER: Cathartiformes
- FAMILY: Cathartidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Aura Gallipavo (Spanish)
- Urubu à tête rouge (French)
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.
- 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 orders, 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.
- 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.”
- As a defense mechanism, Turkey Vultures may vomit on a bird, animal, or human that gets too close. Considering what they eat, this can be a powerful weapon.
- 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.
- When it’s hot outside, Turkey Vultures will defecate on their feet to cool off.
- The Turkey Vulture’s stomach acid is extremely acidic, so Turkey Vultures can digest just about anything. This also allows them to eat carcasses tainted with anthrax, tuberculosis, and rabies without getting sick. By taking care of the carrion, vultures provide an essential service for the health of our ecosystems. Without them, carcasses would accumulate, and diseases would spread from rotting flesh.
- The oldest recorded Turkey Vulture was at least 23 years, 4 months old when it was seen in California in 2019, the same state where it was banded in 1997.