Turkey Vulture

(Cathartes aura)

Turkey Vultures aren't your typical backyard bird, but they serve a purpose and once you get to understand these birds, hopefully you will have a greater appreciation for the work they do and the interesting habits 'Nature' has provided them

"Purifying vulture" Cathartes, meaning "purifier," comes from the Greek word kathartes. This is supposedly a reference to the this vulture's habit of eating carrion and thus "purifying" the countryside.

Much of the prejudice toward the vulture is attributable to its diet (it feeds on carrion). Its diet is often referred to by such terms as filthy, foul, and malodorous. It is a scavenger, gathering where animal waste, scraps and garbage have been discarded.

Other birds like crows, gulls and even our majestic eagles scavenge.

So, why is there this prejudice toward the Turkey Vulture?

Turkey vulture

General Description:

The Turkey Vulture is gentle and non-aggressive.

The most widely distributed vulture the Americas, the Turkey Vulture is a large, predominantly blackish-brown bird. It is most commonly seen soaring overhead. The adult vulture measures 25 to 32 inches in length, has a 5- to 6-foot wingspan, weighs 5 to 6 pounds and soars with its wings tilted up, in a dihedral pattern. They rock back and forth when soaring.

The underwings are two-toned: silvery flight feathers with black wing-linings. The undertail is also light. Juveniles have gray heads while newly hatched birds have black heads.

When the birds are soaring, it is difficult to see the color of the head. The rocking, as well as the dihedral pattern, distinguishes the Turkey Vulture in flight from other large, soaring birds. Perched, adult Vultures are unmistakable, with their featherless, red heads.

There is an important purpose to the vulture's bald head. When the vulture is eating carrion, it must often stick its head inside the carcass to reach the meat. A feathery head would capture unwanted pieces of the vulture's meal (just like food can stick in men's beards), along with all the bacteria such pieces would host. The bald head, ultimately, is a matter of hygiene for vultures.

Turkey Vultures are one of the few birds which have a good sense of smell. Even their cousins, the Black Vultures, do not have a sense of smell.

Turkey vulture


Vultures can be seen soaring over a broad variety of habitats. They are most often found above open country, especially within a few miles of rocky or wooded areas.

Rocky outcroppings, cliffs, and dry forests provide nesting sites, while open areas are prime foraging habitat.


Interestingly, Turkey Vultures
often vomit when approached or harassed by predators, or when handled by researchers. The birds do not "projectile vomit," as many would claim. But they do indeed vomit when stressed, and this natural behavior is a means for vultures gorging on a carcass to off-load some weight when predators approach and the vulture has eaten too much to fly.

(You can imagine how vultures will want to eat as much as possible, given the unpredictable nature of their food source, while still maintaining flight capabilities.)

Unlike most birds, Turkey vultures have a well-developed sense of smell and can smell a food source from several miles away. As they soar over foraging areas, they scan the ground, searching for carrion or scavengers that might signal the presence of something dead. When they locate food, they eat it in place.

They usually forage alone, but sometimes congregate around food sources. They roost communally in small groups. In the eastern US, several thousand birds may nest in the same area.

The Turkey vulture often directs its urine right onto its legs. This process, known as urohydrosis, serves two very important purposes. On warm days, wetting the legs cools the vulture as the urine evaporates. (The vulture cannot sweat like us).

In addition, this urine contains strong acids from the vulture's digestive system, which may kill any bacteria that remain on the bird's legs from stepping in its meal

opossum carcass


Turkey Vultures are scavengers, eating nearly any carrion they find.

(Remains of an Opossum as I watched a vulture fly into a tree pictured above.)

They prefer fresh carrion one too four days old and appear to specialize in small food items, especially where their range overlaps with the dominant Black vulture, a
species of the Southeast to Texas and Mexico.

This species has been recorded eating a wide variety of food, including wild and domestic carrion, stranded mussels, shrimp, grasshoppers, mayflies washed onto shore, rotten pumpkins, palm fruit, grapes, juniper berries, and feces of coyote and sea lion.

They cannot open large carcasses as the hooked bill is rather fragile and weak.

It seems they too have a preference in taste and smell of their food. They prefer their meat aged by 1 to 4 days. Longer in cool temperatures. Carrion becomes to rancid (smell and taste), even for these birds.


It is not known when Turkey Vultures first form pair bonds and breed, but they do form long-term bonds. Pair formation includes a ritualized display with several birds in a circle on the ground, hopping up and down with wings partly spread.

Nests are located in sheltered areas, such as hollow trees or logs, in cliffs, caves, dense thickets, old buildings, or any secluded area isolated from humans.

They build little or no nest and lay 1 to 3 eggs on the ground or the bottom of the nest area. Both male and female help incubate the eggs for about 38 to 41 days.

Both have brood patches. Nest sites may be in old abandoned buildings and barns. Some nest site are on the ground or in ground cavities.

Once hatched, the nestlings are brooded almost continuously for the first five days. The male and female take turns brooding the young, allowing one parent to collect food that it then regurgitates for the young.

The young first begin to fly at about nine or ten weeks. The fledging process is gradual and varies depending on nest location. Birds fledging from lower sites have the luxury of taking short practice flights for a few days before taking extended flights. The first flight of young birds that hatch in exposed or elevated nests will generally be extended, since short hops are sometimes too risky for them.

Once the young begin to fly, they generally spend 1 to 3 more weeks at the nest site, taking advantage of the food provided by their parents.

Turkey Vulture


Turkey Vultures fly with their wings in a dihedral ( shallow V-shape), and can often by identified by this dihedral as well as by their characteristic "wobbly" rocking motion in flight. They are very graceful, many even say beautiful, in flight, and can soar for hours without flapping their wings.

Their flapping, when it occurs, appears laborious and is usually used
on take-offs and before landings.

Contrary to popular belief, circling vultures do not necessarily indicate the presence of a dead animal. Circling vultures may be gaining altitude for long flights, searching for food, or playing. These birds soar on thermals of warm, rising air. Soaring flight is much more energetically efficient than powered, flapping flight.

After rising on the thermal, they glide as far as possible before they need to gain altitude again. They also rely on thermals of warm air, as well as air currents that are deflected upwards off hills, to remain aloft while scanning the ground for food.

You will certainly see vultures in the air over a carcass, and they may remain in the air until they feel the situation is safe enough for them to land and begin feeding.

Migration Status:

Vultures are considered partial migrants. Those birds that breed north of the wintering grounds usually migrate. Their final destination is unclear.

Interesting Facts:

The Turkey Vulture received its common name from the resemblance of the adult's bald red head and its dark plumage to that of the male Wild Turkey,

The Turkey Vulture is one of the most skilled soarers among the North American birds.

The Turkey Vulture's frail bill has a sharp hook at the end for tearing apart its food, but can't tear through thick skin of larger animals.

You can see through the nasal passage in the beak of a turkey vulture.

Vultures are one of the very few birds to have an excellent sense of smell. They often find natural gas pipe leaks because ethyl mercaptan -- the unpleasant smell added to natural gas -- is also the odor of rotting flesh (dinner to the vulture).

Vultures stand with three toes forward and one toe backwards. Their weak feet and short, curved talons are not able to seize prey. The main function of their feet is running on the ground.

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