Common Name: Turkey Vulture
(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Ms. Jackie Shane in Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington in Spring 2009)
The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is the most abundant and most widely distributed avian scavenger in the New World. It is a large (28 inches long weighing 4 pounds with a wing span up to 6 feet), dark bird that is easily recognized on the ground by its featherless, red head and also in the air due to its broad, “eagle-sized” wings that characteristically wobble just a bit as it soars in great circles in the updrafts.
Image credit - Lee Karney, US Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library
Turkey vultures are found all across southern Canada, the continental United States, Mexico, Central America, and down to South America to Tierra del Fuego. Birds in the northern regions of this broad distribution migrate to warmer habitats in the winter while birds in the warmer to milder regions of this range stay in place all year round. The vultures in the northeastern United States tend to migrate to Florida or Texas, while birds in the northwestern United States migrate all the way down to South America possibly as far as Argentina. These northern birds are very recognizable in their winter ranges since they tend to be larger and possibly much more aggressive toward and dominant over the smaller, native vultures. Migrating flocks can be extremely large (thousands of individuals!). Migrating turkey vultures, though, cannot fly at night (they require the thermal updrafts generated by the heat of the day) and, so, each day must seek out secluded roosts as evening approaches.
Turkey vultures have extremely weak feet and blunt talons. Thus, they are not able to readily kill prey or rip at a carcass with anything other than their sharp, curved beak. They also show a distinct preference for relatively fresh kills and will not readily consume rotting carcasses. They are relatively timid birds who will, if challenged at a carcass by another scavenger (like an eagle or a black vulture), regurgitate their ingested materials for the challenger to consume. At a carcass, turkey vultures feed in an organized, individual manner, each waiting for their turn by exhibiting a behavior called “queuing.”
Turkey vultures respond to threats and danger primarily by vomiting on the source of the danger. Since their stomach contents are typically a very acidic slurry of the flesh of a dead animal, this behavior is quite an effective deterrent against aggression.
The impact of DDT on egg shell stability reduced the turkey vulture population slightly, but the banning of this pesticide has led to a completely recovered and, possibly, growing worldwide population. Potential lethal impacts of lead ingestion (from bullets and pellets in hunter-killed animals), though, are of a concern in turkey vultures. Turkey vultures have also been killed by farmers and ranchers out of concern that these carrion consuming birds will spread pathogens and diseases from carcass to carcass. The great efficiency of the turkey vulture’s digestive system, though, very effectively destroys ingested pathogens (turkey vulture fecal materials are completely free of any pathogenic organisms).
Mating and Reproduction
In parts of their North American range turkey vultures are referred to as “buzzards.” Oddly, the term “buzzard” specifically describes a group of European and African birds of prey (hawks). How that specific avian name ever became attached to the turkey vulture remains a mystery.
The turkey vulture is nobody’s favorite bird. They are not beautiful to look at up close, they make no beautiful songs (in fact they lack the organ of song generation (the syrinx) completely!), and they eat dead animals. Their role, though, in clearing and cleaning up our terrestrial ecosystems is vital to the health of us all!
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This page was last updated on
July 28, 2014