Turkey Vulture - Cathartes aura

Length 2.1-2.7 ft (63.5-81.3 cm)
Wingspan 5.7-6.0 ft (172.7-182.9 cm)
Weight 1.9-4.4 lb (850-2000 g)
Clutch Size 2
Chicks at birth Altricial
IUCN Conservation Status Least Concern
Continents:NA, SA

Turkey Vultures are a large dark brown bird with a red head (juveniles have dark colored heads). The leading edge of the underside of their wings is brown and the rest is off-white. These two toned wings are one of the field markers for aiding in identifying them. Another is the slight 'V' of their wings in flight and another is how their wings wobble from side-to-side in flight. It is quite a sight to see Turkey Vultures soaring in the air. They use rising thermals to rise in the air which minimizes the need to flap their wings.

One of the things I find interesting about the Turkey Vulture, is that there is no membrane between their nostrils. In other words, if you are looking at the Vulture's profile, you can see right through the nose. Some of the pictures below demonstrate this.

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Diet: Turkey Vultures are scavengers and feed almost exclusively on carrion but they will occasionally eat vegetable matter, live insects and other invertebrates. They use their acute sense of smell (very rare in birds) and their keen eyesight to find food.

Their bald head helps keep unwanted bacteria from infecting the vulture as they feed on carrion. Also, having no feathers on they head make it less likely their head would be caught in the prey's body as they feed.

Courtship: One of the Turkey Vultures' courtship ritual involves several vultures gathering in a circle where they hop around the circle with their wings partially spread. They are considered monogamous.

Nesting: The Turkey Vulture will nest on the ground, in caves, abandoned barns, etc. They do not build a nest, but will scratch out an indentation in the ground. Both parents will incubate the eggs and feed the chicks. They brood 1-3 chicks. The chicks are helpless at birth.

Habitat and Range: Turkey Vultures are seen throughout North and South American from southern Canada to the south-most tip of South America.

They can be found in many open and semi-open areas from subtropical forests to deserts. They favor open areas that are near woods for nesting. At night they will roost in trees or man-made structures in large groups. I have seen this behavior at the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge at twilight.

Vocalization: Turkey Vultures only making grunting and hissing sounds because they lack a syrinx (voice box for birds).

Plumage/Molt: Male and females plumage is the same. Molting is done over a long period during the summer. This molting overlaps with their breeding season.

Migration: Turkey Vultures that live in the northern parts of North America migrate south during the winter. The south can be the southern U.S. or South America. Turkey Vultures who live in warmer climes may not migrate. When they migrate, flock size can be quite large (10,000 birds).

Tongue/feet: The toes of the Turkey Vulture have three toes facing forward and one to the back. There is a slight webbing between the front toes. Their feet are weaker than a Black Vulture's which means that they are unable to pick up and carry away large prey.

Turkey Vultures also defecate feces and urine on their feet. This is believed to help cool the feet and the strong acid in feces/urine may kill any bacteria remaining from the vulture's food.


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