youve 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
At a Glance
an eagle; larger than
a Red-tailed Hawk
- Urubu à tête rouge, Vautour (French)
- Zopilote Aura, Aura cabecirroja (Spanish)
- 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
odorsit can detect just a few parts per trillionallows
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 deathmany
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.
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.
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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
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Number of Broods
or green, and
purple to brown.
Condition at Hatching
blind, and defenseless
beyond a quiet
Turkey Vultures dont 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.
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.
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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.
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status via IUCN
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.
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