The Truth About Turkey Vultures
One summer, a long time ago, as I bent down to help my Mom pick wild strawberries for that night's dessert, out of the corner of my eye something caught my attention. I looked past our neighbor Mrs. Maine’s house, and into the sky above ’Sugar Hill’, where I had enjoyed watching so many awesomely beautiful sunsets. A very large, very dark bird with an impressive wingspan was moving silently and slowly, circling in the sky over the hill.
“What IS that, Mom?” My mother stopped picking berries and stood upright, shading her eyes from the bright sun. “Oh”, she said with a positive note, “that’s a turkey vulture riding a thermal.”
That’s a new one on me! I’ve heard of a turkey, and I know about vultures, but a turkey vulture? Thinking about the two different birds, my mind tried to conjure up an image that would blend both of these avian wonders. I could not imagine a turkey flying at such a great height. Turkeys fly, but only if they have to, and then just to treetop level to roost for the night. Certainly it would never be able to ascend high enough to find a thermal.
What about vultures? They work at carcasses and road kill on the ground. It would stand to reason that in order to find the meat they crave, they would have to take to the skies. Oh, but don’t vultures circle in flocks like you see in the western movies?
Did You Know?
Turkey Vultures can live up to 35 years, but the average lifespan is about 20 years in the wild. Despite what they eat, their excellent immune systems serve them well!
This was a lone bird sailing lazily higher, and higher, until I could barely see the dark dot against the glaring blue backdrop. It did not appear to be searching for a meal; rather, I had the distinct feeling it was just ‘hanging out’ enjoying the splendid late afternoon. I was compelled to find out more.
I was still scratching my head when I asked my Mom how she so easily identified this very large eagle-sized bird. She told me about the two-toned wings. Turkey vultures’ outer wings are lighter in color than the rest of the body, their tails are narrow, and they soar with their wings held in a very shallow ‘v’ shape. Being a Pennsylvania dairy farm girl, she had seen lots of these birds soaring over my grandparents’ pastures.
Look it Up!
Okay, I need to solve this mystery for my own peace of mind. How do you combine a turkey and a vulture? Why would it be named for 2 different birds?
After dinner, I consulted our trusty set of Encyclopedia Britannica, which my parents were still paying for by the way! Any time we had a question, I remember either my Mom or Dad telling us to "go look it up, that’s why we bought those books!"
Comparison of Turkey Vulture, Turkey & Black Vulture
Dark Brown/Two-Tone Wing Appears White or Silver/Head Red
Dark Brown/Brown Wing/Bluish Head with Red Wattle
Black Body and Wings/ Dark Grey Head
Shallow 'Scratch' on Ground, in Tree Cavity or on Ledge
Under a Bush or Hedgerow on the Ground
On Ground, on High Ledge or in Tree Cavity
Size of Clutch
Most often 2, rarely 3 eggs
12 to 15 eggs
Quiet Except for Hisses and Grunts While Feeding or at the Nest
Gobble, Gobble, Low Clucking by Hens, Drum Sound from Male
Hisses and Grunts as it Feeds
Hilly Terrain, Pastures and Fields, Roadsides
Woodlands, Pastures and Fields
Swampy Bog Areas & Marshes
Turkey Vulture Range Map
Black Vulture Range Map
It turned out that my supposition that this particular bird is a scavenger is true. On the other hand, turkeys forage for acorns, grains, salamanders and other living things found in and on the ground.
Comparing Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures and Turkeys, I discovered that all three often roost in flocks at night for safety from predators; and they all lay their eggs on the ground under a bush or in dense thickets. Although the Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures sometimes choose a tree cavity or cave or even a ledge on which to scratch out their nest. Turkeys often lay more than a dozen eggs, while both kinds of vultures produce only 2 to 3 eggs in a clutch.
The turkey vulture is common all over the United States; but black vultures are most often seen from Kansas to the east coast, and only as far north as Pennsylvania; and more commonly in the southern states and South America.
Turkeys and turkey vultures find their food with their sense of smell. It is the turkey vulture that has a highly developed ability to detect the stench of cadavers, even at great distances. The black vulture relies on its eyesight to locate prey.
Through my research I discovered that black vultures often follow turkey vultures to find their next meal. Being the aggressive birds that they are, black vultures will frequently chase the gentler-natured turkey vultures from their carcass! In this case, ‘finders--keepers’ does not apply!
It seems the smaller Black Vulture prefers swampy areas, while the Turkey Vulture is most often seen around hilly terrain, along roadsides and in pasturelands.
I still did not have a clue why turkey vultures had been so named. More digging was necessary.
Some similarities, but lots of differences as well for all three of these birds. I venture to say that although I find these three birds to be very handsome specimens, many others would describe them as having a countenance only their mother could love!
Turkey Vulture/Turkey/Black Vulture
Studying our old set of Britannica Encyclopedias I found pictures of all three of these birds. There is a similarity between the head of a turkey, and the head of a turkey vulture. While turkeys have bluish pates and a red wattle down the neck and front, the turkey vulture has a red featherless head. Both are very dark birds with similar-looking brown wing feathers. This was the clue I was looking for.
Aha! their name is based on the similarities in appearance between turkeys and turkey vultures. Mystery solved!
The Truth About Turkey Vultures
- Gentle, caring and devoted parents
- Essential part of Nature’s cleanup crew
- Perform removal of carcasses before they can become diseased
- Purify environment by eliminating animal cadavers that are already infected
- Do not spread any diseases whatsoever, contrary to popular beliefs
- Considered sacred in some cultures for their gift of sanitizing
- Enjoy soaring on high using warm thermals to lift them ever upward
Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder!
Turkey vulture heads are small and featherless for a very good reason. Think about it--much like workmen dress for the job, these birds do the opposite. They undress (their heads) for the task at hand. If their noggins had feathers, they would get all gummed up when they dove into carcasses. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. Vultures would be spending far too much of their time preening and cleaning instead of filling their bellies. The smaller head size allows them to get into all the nooks and crannies where the meat is. In the bird world, efficiency most often translates to survival.
As far as turkey heads go, well they have all those beautiful body feathers for amazing courtship displays. Mother Nature must have decided to design the head for optimum ground-pecking ability rather than beauty.
Anyway, I have always believed that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure hen turkeys find their male counterparts to be most attractive!
Vultures are an elegant part of Nature’s cleanup crew. In some cultures they are revered as purifiers and cleansers. Buddhists believe they have the ability to release the soul and take it to Heaven. So it was a routine practice to offer their dead to vultures for ‘cleansing’ and delivery to the firmament, also known as ‘sky burials‘.
In India however, the use of an anti-inflammatory chemical in cattle food has proven toxic to their vultures. Very few of these sacred birds are left. So of necessity, their rituals have been abandoned in favor of earthly interments.
Our Vultures Had Different Parentage
It is curious to note that our New World vultures are not related to the Old World birds in any way. Our vultures seemed to have evolved the same behavior; but after much scientific debate, it is now thought that the line of descent includes the condor family.
Young Turkey Vultures in Nest from HedgeLiving
Turkey Vulture Cool Facts from KQED Quest
Turkey vultures are gentle creatures, despite their ghoulish reputations. Other birds, like the smaller black vultures and hawks, find it very easy to drive them away from their own finds. They will take turns, one at a time, rather than fight over bits and pieces of flesh. They are also caring and devoted parents. Once a suitable nest site is found, it will be used over and over again for as long as the pair breeds.
When the young hatch from their excellently camouflaged eggs, they are helpless to defend or feed themselves; and they are often blind. Their parents are ever watchful for possible predatory attacks, and they are adept at providing plenty of food for their downy chicks. They will need to find lots to nourish their babies for the next 60 to 80 days or so. It will take that long before the hatchlings are proficient at flying and finding food for themselves.
Beyond a few grunts or hisses when they are working at carcasses, or when at the nest, they have no voice. Turkey vultures have excellent immune systems, which is a good thing. Otherwise they might contract all kinds of nasty diseases from the dead animals they ingest. They are quite often seen roosting on the ground or atop a dead tree stump with their wings spread outward, and their backs to the sun. It is thought that this action functions to help rid them of parasites contracted from their food sources.
As a defense mechanism, however, there is one rather unsavory habit they have. If they feel afraid or threatened, and this includes the chicks, they regurgitate (often in the direction of the perceived threat). This offensive act repels, and takes their attacker by surprise, with the sight and awful odor. Plus, it serves to lighten the load for a quicker get away!
For More Information About Turkey Vultures:
- The Turkey Vulture Society
The Turkey Vulture Society
Alas, their distasteful Hollywood reputation precedes them. And they are often mistakenly referred to as ‘buzzards’ or ‘turkey buzzards’. But their scientific name, Cathartes aura, actually translates to either ‘purifying breeze’ or ‘golden purifier’. Either of those interpretations is more accurate than the word ‘vulture’, which means to tear.
The unfounded fears that these birds spread disease often prompts intentional shootings and cruel poisonings and trappings. But these vultures keep the environment clean and disease free, rather than the reverse.
As humans, I think we sometimes tend to equate beauty with goodness, and ugliness with evil. All living things have a role on this Earth. The misunderstood and much maligned Turkey Vulture serves a noble purpose. We need to look past the superficial idea of attractiveness, and give the Turkey Vulture the reverence it has rightfully earned and deserves.
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