Turkey Vulture Life History

Habitat

Habitat Open WoodlandsLook 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. Back to top

Food

Food CarrionTurkey 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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest CliffTurkey 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.

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:1-3 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.6-3.0 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.
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Behavior

Behavior Soaring (raptor)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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernTurkey Vultures increased in number across North America from 1966 to 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 18 million with 28% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 9% in Mexico, and 1% breeding in Canada. The species rates a 5 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Turkey Vulture is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. These birds were threatened by side-effects of the pesticide DDT, but 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.Back to top

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.

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Credits

Kirk, David A. and Michael J. Mossman. 1998. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

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