TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura) TURKEY VULTURE (Cathartes aura)


RANGE: North America from southern Canada to South America

HABITAT: Open country with some trees, desert, forest, and jungle

SIZE: LENGTH: 26-32 inches
WINGSPAN: 68-72 inches
WEIGHT: 4-6.5 lbs.

WILD: Up to 16 years
CAPTIVITY: Up to 21 years

WILD: Carrion (2-4 days dead).
CAPTIVITY: Rats, chicks, road kill, and scraps

BEHAVIOR: Northern and western Turkey Vultures migrate in the winter to the southern U.S. and Central and South America. They are very social birds, roosting together at night (up to 70 birds in a tree) and searching for food together in groups of 3-12. The birds sun themselves by spreading their wings for several minutes before they fly, providing them with vitamin D. This also helps them to conserve energy by increasing their body temperature in the winter, and it aids them in sensing the hot air rising off the ground that they may use to soar. Their only natural defense is to project their vomit, throwing up and out, shaking their heads. They can cover anything up to six feet away (and you thought it smelled bad the first time!). Once the danger has passed, the Turkey Vulture will then re-eat the vomit (waste not, want not).

REPRODUCTION: Turkey Vultures lay 2-3 eggs from February to June. Eggs are laid on the ground in dense shrubbery, tree stumps, caves, or abandoned houses. No nesting material is used. Both sexes incubate for 38-41 days, and the young fledge at 70-80 days. The parents may continue to feed them until the fall.

POINTS OF INTEREST: What’s in a Name? The Turkey Vulture is so named because of the resemblance of its head to that of a Wild Turkey. Its common name, Buzzard, is actually the name of a European relative of the Red-tailed Hawk. The theory is that when the first settlers arrived they thought that the large, black vultures in the sky looked like the large, black buzzards from their homeland, and the name stuck.

A Black Bird with a Silver Lining: Immature birds (under one year) have black beaks and heads. As the bird matures the beak gradually turns white and the head red. The black feathers of the Turkey Vulture actually contain many iridescent colors that can be seen when the sun strikes them. The undersides of their wings have a silvery-white lining.

Turkey vs. Black: The two native North American species of vulture can be differentiated several ways. The Turkey Vulture has a red head, white beak, and a silver lining all the way across the undersides of its wings. The Black Vulture has a black head, black beak, and a silver dot at the end of each wing. In flight, the Turkey Vulture holds its wings in a shallow dihedral (V-shape) and rocks back and forth with its legs not visible beyond its tail. The Black Vulture’s wings are held more level during flight, and its short tail allows its feet to extend beyond it. Personalities also differ greatly; the Black Vulture is by far the more aggressive of the two species, eagerly attacking anything in its vicinity.

Baldy: The featherless head of the Turkey Vulture is a special adaptation that allows it to stick its head up into the body cavity of a dead animal without getting blood and tissue on its feathers. Anything that gets stuck to its bald head dries up and flakes off. If the Turkey Vulture had feathers on its head, it would not be able to reach the feathers to preen them and remove the gunk.

Follow Your Nose: The sense of smell of the Turkey Vulture is phenomenal. From 200 feet in the air they can smell a dead mouse under leaves in a forest. Their beak has a hole all the way through it that allows odors to pass through from both sides. When they soar on thermals in the sky they are attempting to scent carrion. They are the only North American raptor with a developed sense of smell, and Black Vultures will "hang out" with Turkey Vultures to find food. Once the food is found, the more aggressive Black Vulture will run the Turkey Vulture off of the carcass. When Texas gas lines develop leaks, the scent of a dead animal is injected into the pipes. Repairmen then go out in helicopters looking for circling vultures without any carrion on the ground, and they know that they have found their leak.

A Bite Worse than its Bark: If you make it pass the projectile vomit of the Turkey Vulture, the bite is the next worse thing. When a Turkey Vulture bites, it bites, twists, and pulls simultaneously. As for warning you vocally to stay away, the Turkey Vulture does not have vocal cords like other raptors and can only grunt.

Alleged Orphans: Hatchlings are covered with white fuzz and wander around on the ground (since Turkey Vultures build no nest) while the adults are searching for food. People often find these young birds while walking through the woods and assume they have been abandoned. However, when the parents return to the nest area they call out to the young and the chicks come running from all over to receive their meal of regurgitated carrion.

A Stork in Raptor’s Clothing: Recent DNA testing on Turkey Vultures (and all New World Vultures) tells us what biologists have suspected for years: Turkey Vultures are more closely related to storks than to raptors. These birds lack the strong talons that are the trademark of raptors; in fact, a Turkey Vulture would be unable to carry off even a mouse in its feet. However, Old World Vultures are genetically similar to raptors. The striking similarities between New and Old World Vultures are a result of convergent evolution; this is when two unrelated species on different continents evolve similarly because they behave in similar ways. Despite these new discoveries, rehabbers that specialize in raptors continue to care for injured New World Vultures because they always have before, and they are the group with the most knowledge on how to treat the birds.

Nature’s Garbage Men: Turkey Vultures are able to eat carrion and contaminated meat due to specialized digestive enzymes and bacteria in their systems. These enzymes destroy hog cholera, rabies, and other contagious diseases in their digestive system that would be spread if another animal ate the contaminated carcass. For this reason, farmers will often drag an animal that died for an unknown reason (or just because he does not want to dig a hole) out into a field and allow the vultures to pick the bones clean. The extend the useful life of this unique germ-fighting enzyme, the Turkey Vulture will allow its feces to drop straight down onto it own legs and coat them with the enzyme. This prevents the bird from contracting diseases through cuts on its legs and feet while standing in a carcass. The white coating is also believed to help cool the legs of the Turkey Vulture.

STATUS: Turkey Vultures are very common birds. In the early 1900's it bred only as far north as New Jersey and was considered a southern bird. By the 1960's it had extended its breeding range to southern Canada. The popular theory is that the interstate highway system increased the availability of food in the form of roadkill.

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