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Turkey Vulture

 

Copyright Barbara Samuelson 2002

This Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is an adult; note the white beak. Vultures are characterized by their bald heads, curved beaks, and diet of carion (dead and decaying flesh). The turkey vulture is part of the family of American vultures, which are voiceless birds. Wings are often held in a shallow V (called a dihedral). It's flight is characterized by a rocking from side to side, seldom flapping its wings. Adult has a red head and white bill; the immature's head and bill are dark. Common in dry, open country, woodlands, and farmlands.

Do birds have a sense of smell?

A. Yes, and though it is highly variable from species to species, research is leading to a higher estimation of birds' smelling abilities. According to "Ornithology," by Dr. Frank B. Gill (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1994), sensitivity to odors varies among orders of birds with the size of the olfactory bulb in the brain relative to that of the cerebrum. The bulb tends to be small, but it is well developed in some birds, especially those that fly and hunt by night, and recent research has found that some birds with relatively small olfactory bulbs can smell well enough to detect certain odors. Scientists now suspect that most birds can use the sense of smell in daily activities, and individual species have been found to have high sensivities adapted to needs like mating (finding a female in season by detecting gland secretions), feeding (smelling carrion or worms) or even finding their nesting burrows. Some birds can smell just a trace of a substance that might lead them to food. For example, bacon fat poured on the surface of the ocean attracted black-footed albatrosses from more than 18 miles away, according to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Ornithology (1991). And Gill writes that turkey vultures have been used to find leaks in a 42-mile-long oil pipeline; when ethyl mercaptan, which smells like rotting meat, was pumped through, the birds gathered at the leaks.

The turkey vulture is a critical part of our environment. For more information, click here The Vulture's Purpose.

Turkey Vulture Classification and Range
Turkey vultures and other New World vultures belong to the family Cathartidae, in the order Ciconiiformes.* New World vultures make up the subfamily Cathartinae and are mostly large, long-winged, brownish-black birds with bare heads. Other members of this subfamily include the Andean condor, king vulture, black vulture and the highly endangered California condor. Turkey vultures range from southern Canada to South America.

Habitat Turkey vultures are commonly seen near farms, open ranges and woodland areas soaring on thermals.

Physical Characteristics
Adult turkey vultures are 24-28 inches (60-70 cm) in length with a wingspan of 5-6 feet (150-180 cm). They usually weigh between 3.5-5 pounds (1.6-2.7 kg). The turkey vulture's plumage is dark brown with a blue, green or purple iridescence. The underside of the wing is two-tone with dark brown or black on the leading edge of the wing, with silver-gray flight feathers. Adults have a small, bare, red head; juveniles have blackish heads. The legs are also pale red and bare. Their feet are weak with blunt toenails and a small hind toe.

Life Span Can attain an age of 20 years in captivity.

Diet In the wild
Unlike true birds of prey, vultures rarely catch live prey. Vultures seek out carrion (dead animals) and will eat most anything they come upon. Soaring high above ground, they use their acute vision to locate food. The turkey vulture has a more developed sense of smell than most birds, and can easily locate covered carcasses not visible from the air. At the zoo: Mice, rats and quail. Reproduction Prior to pairing up, turkey vultures often take part in a group "dance." Gathering in large numbers on open ground, they hop, with wings trailing, toward one another. Turkey vultures do not make nests. Instead, clutches of about two eggs are laid in a variety of open spaces, including bare ground in the brush, the floor of caves, on rock shelves, or in rotted-out logs. Both parents incubate the eggs, which takes 38-41 days. Both parents feed the hungry chicks with regurgitated food. Young stay in the nest for about six weeks. Life Cycle Turkey vultures spend much of the day soaring in the sky in search of carrion. Although primarily scavengers, turkey vultures may occasionally attack insects or small, sick animals. At night they often gather in large roosts, in groups. Turkey vultures living in the northern reaches of their range tend to be migratory, and usually assemble in flocks of up to several hundred individuals for the winter and spring migration to and from wintering grounds in the southern states, South America or the West Indies.

Clumsy on the Ground - Agile in the Air
These large birds move awkwardly on the ground, walking or hopping clumsily with a sideways hitch. When preparing to take flight, a turkey vulture leans forward, takes a few steps, hops and then pushes off with its legs while flapping its wings. Once airborne, turkey vultures become birds of grace and agility. Using their large, broad wings to ride warm air thermals, they soar upward and rarely have to flap their wings. Turkey vultures are easy to identify in flight. Their wings are held in a V-shape, or dihedral, over their back. Because they are very light for their size, they tend to teeter back and forth in the wind.

Table Manners?
Vultures are social animals. Several dozen turkey vultures may flock to a large carcass within minutes after its death. Although turkey vultures are usually silent, this all changes when they gather to eat. Silence is replaced with shoving, hissing, grunting, growling and squabbling, and fighting between vultures breaks out at times. Injury, however, rarely occurs during the upheavel of the feeding frenzy. The bare head of a turkey vulture is an adaptation for its scavenging life style, and helps keep the head clean when the vulture sticks its head inside the carcass of a large animal. Fascinating Facts A turkey vulture alarmed by a potential predator will often regurgitate its food. This startles the predator and lightens the turkey vulture so it can fly away!

Copyright Barbara Samuelson 2005

 

Turkey vultures are one of the few birds with a well-developed olfactory sense which they use to locate carrion. Turkey vultures have been used to detect the location of natural gas leaks, because they will circle over the leak lured by the rotten-meat odor added to the gas! No animal is known to prey upon adult turkey vultures!

Turkey Vulture Society


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