Learn About Turkey Vultures

The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is a bird found throughout most of the Americas. It ranges from southern Canada to the southernmost tip of South America. It inhabits a variety of open and semi-open areas, including subtropical forests, shrublands, pastures, and deserts. With a wingspan of 173–183 cm and an average weight of 1.4 kg (3.1 lb), the Turkey Vulture is a large bird. It has dark brown to black plumage; a featherless, purplish-red head and neck; and a short, hooked, ivory-colored beak.

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, while the name “vulture” is derived from the Latin word vulturus, meaning “tearer,” and is a reference to its feeding habits.

The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger and feeds almost exclusively on carrion. It finds its meals using its sense of smell, flying low enough to detect the gasses produced by the beginnings of the process of decay in dead animals. Unlike the other birds of prey, their feet are flat, relatively weak, and poorly adapted to grasping; the talons are also not designed for grasping, as they are relatively blunt.

In flight, it uses thermals to move through the air, flapping its wings infrequently. They can soar air currants for hours without flapping their wings once. It roosts in large community groups. Lacking a syrinx—the vocal organ of birds—its only vocalizations are grunts or low hisses. It nests in caves, hollow trees, or thickets, each year generally raising two chicks, which it feeds by regurgitation.

This vulture is often seen standing in a spread-winged stance. The stance is believed to serve multiple functions: drying the wings, warming the body, and baking off bacteria.

The Turkey Vulture often defecates on its own legs, using the evaporation of the water in the feces and/or urine to cool itself, a process known as urohydrosis. It cools the blood vessels in the unfeathered feet, and causes white uric acid to streak the legs

The turkey vulture is the most abundant vulture in the Americas. Its global population is estimated to be 4,500,000 individuals.

It has very few natural predators. Its primary form of defense is regurgitating semi-digested meat, a foul-smelling substance which deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest. It will also sting if the predator is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes. In some cases, the vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to take flight to flee from a potential predator.

The breeding season of the Turkey Vulture commences in March, peaks in April to May, and continues into June.

Eggs are generally laid in the nesting site in a protected location such as a cliff, a cave, a rock crevice, a burrow, inside a hollow tree, or in a thicket. There is little or no construction of a nest; eggs are laid on a bare surface. Females generally lay two eggs, but sometimes one and rarely three. The eggs are cream-colored, with brown or lavender spots around their larger end. Both parents incubate, and the young hatch after 30 to 40 days. Chicks are helpless at birth. Both adults feed the chicks by regurgitating food for them, and care for them for 10 to 11 weeks. When adults are threatened while nesting, they may flee, or they may regurgitate on the intruder or feign death. If the chicks are threatened in the nest, they defend themselves by hissing and regurgitating.

Scientific Classification:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Incertae sedis (disputed)
  • Family: Cathartidae
  • Genus: Cathartes
  • Species: C. aura

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