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Everything You Wanted to Know About the Turkey Vulture

I have always had an interest in nature and birds of prey in particular. Learn about these majestic creatures that grace our skies.

The beautiful Turkey Vulture

The beautiful 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.

A Perched Turkey Vulture

A Perched Turkey Vulture

Description

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.

Turkey Vulture Range: Yellow denotes summer only; green denotes year-round

Turkey Vulture Range: Yellow denotes summer only; green denotes year-round

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.

Behavior

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.

A Closeup of a Turkey Vulture

A Closeup of a Turkey Vulture

Diet

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.

A Newborn Turkey Vulture

A Newborn Turkey Vulture

Reproduction

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.

A Turkey Vulture in the Horaltic Pose

A Turkey Vulture in the Horaltic Pose

Status

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.

A "Kettle" of Turkey Vultures

A "Kettle" of Turkey Vultures

Interesting Facts

  • 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

Comments

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on April 20, 2016:

Hi Alun. I was just in Florida a few weeks ago and saw my share of Turkey Vultures while there. They continue to fascinate me. Hard to believe this hub is three years old. My intention was to start writing again on Birds of Prey but my lack of available time just has not allowed it. Perhaps in the future.

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on April 20, 2016:

Well it's 3 years since the last comment here, so I think it's about time this excellent hub had another one! :) Whenever I've visited the States I've always been on the lookout for birds, and one of the very first species I've usually seen once out of the city is the turkey vulture, so conspicuous with its large dark wings soaring against a blue sky. People may be repulsed by their appearance, but they are, as you say, very interesting and a vital part of the natural ecology.

As I suspect you're well aware Bill, in the UK the 'buzzard' is a very different bird indeed - a type of hawk - so I would always refer to this bird as a vulture.

Nicely presented and comprehensively informative as ever. Alun

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 19, 2013:

Hi Terrie. They are a funny bird to watch with some very unique traits. And yes, they certainly do help to cleanup our roads. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment, have a great day.

summerberrie on March 18, 2013:

These are great birds to have around. They keep our highways and byways clean and they are comical to watch, too.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 12, 2013:

Hi prasetio30. So glad you enjoyed reading about the Turkey Vulture. They may not be as famous as the eagle or the hawk but they play an important role in our environment, Very much appreciate the visit, and vote up.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on March 12, 2013:

Amazing. I am birds lover. I really enjoy reading this hub and I learn so much about this bird. Thanks for writing and share with us. The photos you included are the best. Voted up!

Prasetio

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 10, 2013:

Hi Joe. With all the walking you're doing now I'll bet you've seen plenty of interesting birds out there. I'm not sure why they aren't as prevalent in your area. Perhaps there are other birds of prey in the area that keep them away.

Those Blue Mountains are very scenic, no wonder you just keep on heading toward them on your walks. If you keep this up you'll be walking a marathon soon. Have you considered working in a little running every now and then? Many thanks for the visit, enjoy what's left of the weekend.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 10, 2013:

Hi flacoinohio. Thanks for reading and commenting. They are a treat to watch as they soar high above. And very interesting as you added. I need to get some good photos of them myself.

Hawaiian Odysseus from Southeast Washington state on March 10, 2013:

Now that I'm walking a lot, Bill, hubs of this nature--while previously interesting--are even more full of life and relevant than ever. As much opossum roadkill that I've seen lately, it's a wonder these turkey vultures aren't as prevalent in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, we probably have a close cousin vulture up here, although I've yet to see one.

(On another note, Bill, as you know, the Blue Mountains have had its share of Bigfoot/Sasquatch sightings. Should I ever see one, I promise to send you a photo! In the meantime, I'm working up to my sprinting...'cause those big fellahs can move quickly!)

flacoinohio from Ohio on March 10, 2013:

I see them around my neighborhood and have a few photos of my own. They are very interesting birds.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 10, 2013:

Hi Suhail. Many thanks for stopping by. I found the Turkey Vulture to very a very interesting bird. They have many unique traits that make them fascinating to observe. Apparently their wobbly style is due to their light weight so they get buffeted around by high currents. We see them here in western Mass occasionally but not in great numbers like down south. The first time I saw dozens roosting in a tree was certainly an amazing sight. Thanks for stopping by and hope you enjoyed the Appalachian Trial.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 10, 2013:

Hi Mary. They are here in western Mass also but we do not see them very often. We did see them in great numbers down in Florida and that is when I got the idea to write about them. The more I learned about them the more interesting and fascinating I found them. They actually play a very important role in nature and are very social birds. Thanks so much for the support, vote, share, etc. See the comment below :)

Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on March 10, 2013:

As a wildlife observer, I admire this hub a lot, thanks to Mary (tillsontitan) for sharing it.

While vacationing along Appalachian Trail in the USA, my wife, daughter, son and I have been observing them with great interest from Berkshires, MA down to Tennessee. Yes, indeed, we saw them in Berkshires in 2008.

You are indeed correct in that we are seeing them, increasingly, in southern Canada as well.

We also learnt a lesson hard way that from a distance you can confuse them with eagles and hawks. However, vultures do have a different style - wobbly - we were told and ever since then we have not made any error in identification lol.

A number of them on trees, while you are hiking all alone, can run shivers down your spine, but you also tend to enjoy their presence. You are not alone after all.

Mary Craig from New York on March 10, 2013:

These guys are truly amazing! I am glad you decided to write about them Bill. They are definitely not something most people are interested in and yet, they are very interesting. Your pictures show how beautiful they are in flight and you've dispelled many myths with this one. We see them occasionally here (Ulster County, NY). Loved this hub.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting...shared too.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 10, 2013:

Hi Suzie. Thanks as always for the great support. Even though the Turkey Vulture is here in Massachusetts we rarely see them here. But we saw many of them in Florida back in January which got me interested in them. I couldn't believe how big they were and seeing these large groups of them roosting in the trees was very fascinating to see. They do have some quirky traits which makes them all the more interesting. Very much appreciate the vote, share, pin, etc. Have a wonderful day.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 10, 2013:

Hi Jen. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read and comment. The Turkey Vulture is only found in North and South America so you'll have to plan a trip here to catch a glimpse of them :) I just recently saw a large group roosting while we were visiting in Florida and it was amazing to see. Thanks so much for the vote, have a great day. Bill

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on March 10, 2013:

Hi Bill,

Another awesome piece and so interesting. Excellent photo selection as always, love the newly hatched baby vulture! They certainly have some really quirky traits and i never would have guessed its because of their toes being weak that they eat on site. Must be amazing seeing them in their natural habitat, I can't remember ever seeing one on my travels.

Great job as always Bill, love your layout you have going in this series of birds it really adds to the entire article.

All the votes, shares, tweets, pinned!

Jennifer Stone from the Riverbank, England on March 10, 2013:

Fascinating hub, with loads of interesting facts. We don't get these birds in the UK, it must be amazing seeing them roost in such large groups! Voted up and interesting, great hub! All the best, Jen

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 10, 2013:

Hi Angelo. Thank you reading and commenting. They were all over the place in Florida. Up here in western Massachusetts we don't see them as often. Appreciate the share and vote.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 10, 2013:

Hi rajan. Yes, they have some very peculiar traits indeed. Interesting creature. Thank you for reading and the vote, share, etc. Have a great day.

Angelo52 on March 10, 2013:

Great piece on this common vulture. I see them overhead all the time. shared and voted up.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on March 09, 2013:

Very interesting to learn about this bird, Bill. And they are massive in size! Interesting to know they urinate on themselves to keep cool in summer and live pretty long lives too.

Voted up, interesting and shared.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 09, 2013:

Hi Deb. They are a very interesting bird. Watching them soaring above us and roosting in large numbers down in Florida was a treat. They are here in Massachusetts but we don't see them very often in my area. Down in Florida they were everywhere. Thanks for stopping by, have a great weekend.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on March 09, 2013:

This is an excellent piece. I have known a number of vultures, who have had very sweet dispositions.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 09, 2013:

Hi Alicia. Thank you. I really enjoyed learning more about the Turkey Vulture after seeing them in abundance down in Florida back in January. I was amazed at how big they actually are and they have some unique and interesting characteristics.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 09, 2013:

Hi torrilynn. Glad you enjoyed it. They are very interesting creatures. Thank you for the vote. Have a wonderful day.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 09, 2013:

Thank you for another very interesting bird of prey hub! The photos are beautiful and the facts are fascinating.

torrilynn on March 09, 2013:

Hi bdegiulio,

thanks for this hub about the turkey vulture

I knew some information about vultures in general

and im great that I was able to learn more information.

thanks again and Voted up

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 09, 2013:

Hi Patricia. Thank you for reading and commenting. Apparently they do have a pecking order when they feed which I found interesting. It is amazing to watch them as they ride the thermals circling above. Many thanks for the stopping by and the vote. Have a great day.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on March 09, 2013:

Well done and well researched. These are actually quite interesting to watch. They seem to have a whole system of declaring who claims the first rights at eating the road kill.

It is fascinating to me to see them up high, circling and circling, and then zooming down to claim their prize.

Interesting and voted up :) ps

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 09, 2013:

Hi Bill. Became interested in them when we were down in Florida. They were everywhere down there. Up close they are pretty ugly with that bald read head but when soaring in the sky they are beautiful. A very interesting bird with some very unique habits. Thanks for stopping by, have a great day.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 09, 2013:

I have never seen one in the wild. I always thought they were an ugly bird because of that red head, but they are majestic with wings spread and soaring in the sky. Thanks for the education my friend; the pictures are great.

Bill De Giulio (author) from Massachusetts on March 09, 2013:

Thank you Carol. The Turkey Vulture, while not as famous as some of the eagle species is still an amazing bird and one that many in North America can see as they are abundant and widespread here. They certainly are an interesting species and have some unique characteristics. Thanks for the read, vote and pin. Have a great weekend.

carol stanley from Arizona on March 09, 2013:

I love watching birds fly. I am always in awe of your hubs about travel and birds. A learning experience for me and find out amazing facts. This was great. Voting up and pinning.