Everything You Wanted to Know About the Turkey Vulture
They may not be the most glamorous bird of prey or receive as much attention as some of their eagle and hawk counterparts, but turkey vultures are certainly interesting members of the family. Found across both North and South America, the turkey vulture, also known as the buzzard, is the most abundant of America's New World vultures. The name turkey vulture is most appropriate and came about because of the species' resemblance to the wild turkey with its bald, red head and dark plumage.
Turkey vultures are very large birds. They average from 24 to 28 inches in length with an impressive wingspan of between 5 to 6 feet. They can weigh as much as five pounds but generally average about four pounds. Birds found in the more northern reaches of their range typically weigh more than those found in the tropics where the average weight is closer to three pounds. Males and females are similar in size with females being just slightly larger.
As adults, turkey vultures are mostly dark brownish-black in color with a very distinctive bald, red head. The feathers underneath their wings are a lighter silver-grey in color and contrast nicely against the dark linings of the wings. Their legs and feet have no feathers and are pinkish-red in color.
Young turkey vultures take about two years to develop their adult colors and have a much browner look to their body feathers. Their heads are a grayish color until they reach about one year of age, at which point the head starts to turn pink.
Habitat and Range
The turkey vulture is found across an extensive range and can be found throughout South America and in every American state except for Hawaii and Alaska. Over the last century or so, the species has crept northward and is now found in southern and eastern portions of Canada. They are the most abundant vulture found here in the Americas, and their estimated population is thought to be about 4.5 million individuals.
While most of the birds in the southern United States and South America are permanent residents, those in the northern areas do migrate south in winter. The fall migration usually does not take place until October or November, and the spring migration generally occurs from February through May. In winters that happen to be mild, it is not uncommon for turkey vultures to stay put in their habitat.
The turkey vulture needs a fairly large territory, and they can be found in shrublands, subtropical forests, open country, and deserts, so they are quite adaptable and varied. They need areas that can provide a continuous supply of carrion and a safe and suitable area for nesting and roosting.
Turkey vultures are very gregarious creatures, and as such, they like to roost in large groups. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of vultures in a communal roost, many with their wings spread, which is thought to help warm the body.
In flight, the turkey vulture is surprisingly graceful and has superb flight control. With their large wingspan, they can soar for hours at a time with little to no effort. Because of their relatively light weight and large wingspan, they are susceptible to strong wind currents and can be seen rocking and swaying as they adjust to them.
The turkey vulture is a scavenger, and most if not all of its diet is made up of carrion. They will eat dead animals that range in size from a tiny mouse to a large cow or deer and prefer fresh meat as opposed to old, rotted carcasses. On occasion, they will resort to killing small rodents that are weak or dying, and they are not opposed to raiding heron and ibis nests to steal eggs.
The turkey vulture uses both its sense of smell and its keen eyesight to search for food. Because they do not have strong talons, they cannot carry their meals, so they must eat at the location of the food source. Turkey vultures prefer smaller carcasses, and because of this, they have developed a hierarchical feeding system that allows the dominant alpha male to feed first. Because they never know where and when their next meal will come, they typically eat as much as their stomachs can hold.
The Turkey vulture is monogamous and mates for life. A nesting area for a pair is not really a nest at all but rather a rocky cave or a hollow stump. The nesting site is very different and separate from their roosting area and is normally located in a remote location.
The female will usually lay two eggs between April and May. The eggs are laid on the ground with no nesting material to protect them. Both parents share in the incubation duties, and the incubation period is fairly long at about 40 days. Newborns are coated in a thick white down. It takes up to eleven weeks for the chick to fledge, and during this period, they rely on their parents for food. Because they cannot carry their food, the parents feed their young by regurgitating partially digested food.
The young vultures remain with their parents for many months and rely on them for food during this time. This long period of dependency is the reason that turkey vultures only breed every other year.
Even though the turkey vulture has extended its range northward over the last century, its numbers are declining, especially in the south. Experts think that their slow rate of reproduction combined with habitat loss is contributing to the decline.
Surprisingly, turkey vultures have been persecuted in the past due to the inaccurate perception that they are responsible for spreading disease. On the contrary, they actually help to prevent the spread of disease, as the acid in their digestive systems is strong enough to destroy any disease-spreading bacteria.
Currently, the turkey vulture is protected by law, and it is illegal to harass or shoot one. Although their numbers are currently estimated to be about 4.5 million, they have been placed on the Blue List by the Audubon Society, which indicates that the species is being carefully monitored.
- The turkey vulture does not have a vocal box. They are limited to making grunts and hisses, which they do when they feel threatened.
- The spread-winged stance that is common among turkey vultures is called the “horaltic pose.” Experts think this is done to warm their bodies and dry their wings. It also allows the sun's UV rays to eliminate bacteria and parasites from their bodies.
- The turkey vulture often vomits when approached by predators or when it is threatened. Researchers think this may be a means of grossing out any would-be predators.
- The turkey vulture is one of the few birds with a keen sense of smell. They rely on this and their excellent eyesight to seek out food.
- Experts think that the creation of the U.S. interstate highway system is partially responsible for the species' northward expansion. With more highways come more roadkill and thus more turkey vultures.
- The turkey vulture has been used to help locate natural gas leaks. Apparently, the rotten-meat odor that accompanies the gas lures them to the location.
- The turkey vulture can remain aloft for many hours while riding warm thermal drafts and is capable of soaring as high as 20,000 feet.
- In captivity, they can live up to 30 years, but they have an average lifespan of 16–20 years in the wild.
- A large group of vultures circling high above is referred to as a “kettle.” The name comes from the fact that they resemble a pot of boiling water.
- The turkey vulture will urinate on its legs during the hot summer months to help cool itself.
- The turkey vulture is the most common of the New World vultures. New World vultures are those that are found in South, Central, and North America. Conversely, Old World vultures are found in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Bill De Giulio