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Birds of Prey: The Turkey Vulture

Updated on March 12, 2017
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Bill has always had an interest in nature and in particular birds of prey. Learn about these majestic creatures that grace our skies.

They may not be the most glamorous bird of prey or receive as much attention as some of their eagle and hawk counterparts, but the Turkey Vulture is certainly an interesting member 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 their resemblance to the wild Turkey with its red bald head and dark plumage.

The beautiful Turkey Vulture
The beautiful Turkey Vulture | Source

Description

The Turkey Vulture is a very large bird. They average from 24 to 28 inches in length with an impressive wingspan of between five to six 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. The male and female are similar in size with the female being just slightly larger.

As adults the Turkey Vulture is mostly a dark brownish-black in color with a very distinctive red, bald 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 a 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 when the head starts to turn pink.

Source

Habitat & 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.

Turkey Vulture Range:  Yellow - summer only Green - year round
Turkey Vulture Range: Yellow - summer only Green - year round | Source

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 is generally in February to May. In winters that happen to be mild it is not uncommon for the Turkey Vulture to stay put in their habitat.

The Turkey Vulture needs a fairly large territory and they can be found in shrub lands, 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.

Large group of Turkey Vultures roosting
Large group of Turkey Vultures roosting | Source

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 with superb flight control and with their large wingspan can soar for hours at a time with little to no effort. Because of their relatively light weight and large wing span they are susceptible to strong wind currents and can be seen rocking and swaying as they adjust to the currents.

Turkey Vulture in flight
Turkey Vulture in flight | Source
Source

Diet

The Turkey Vulture is a scavenger and most if not all of their 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 toes they cannot carry their meal and they must eat at the source of location. 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.

The Turkey Vulture

Reproduction

The Turkey Vulture is monogamous and they mate for life. A nesting area for the 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.

New born Turkey Vulture
New born Turkey Vulture | Source

The female will usually lay two eggs in April to 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. After hatching, the young vulture will be coated in a thick white down. It will take up to eleven weeks for the chick to fledge and during this period they rely on the parents for food. Because they cannot carry their food the parents will feed their young by regurgitating partially digested food.

The young vultures will continue to remain with their parents for many months and will rely on them for food during this time. This long period of dependency is the reason that the Turkey Vulture will only breed every other year.

Turkey Vulture in the horaltic pose
Turkey Vulture in the horaltic pose | Source

Status

Even though the Turkey Vulture has extended its range northward over the last century their 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, the Turkey Vulture has 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 them. 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 | Source

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 body and dry their wings. It also allows the sun's UV rays to eliminate bacteria and parasites from their bodies.
  • The Turkey Vulture will vomit 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 road kill and thus more Turkey Vultures.
  • The Turkey Vulture has been used to help locate natural gas leaks. Apparently the rotten-meat odor that is added to gas lures them to the location.
  • The Turkey Vulture can remain aloft for many hours while riding the warm thermal drafts and they are 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 and hence the reference to a kettle.
  • The Turkey Vulture will urinate on their legs during the hot summer months to help cool themselves.
  • 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.

© 2013 Bill De Giulio

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    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 18 months ago from Massachusetts

      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 profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 18 months ago from Essex, UK

      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

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

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      summerberrie 4 years ago

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

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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 profile image

      prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

      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

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • hawaiianodysseus profile image

      Hawaiian Odysseus 4 years ago from Southeast Washington state

      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 profile image

      flacoinohio 4 years ago from Ohio

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

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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 and my dog profile image

      Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent 4 years ago from Mississauga, ON

      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.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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

    • Suzie HQ profile image

      Suzanne Ridgeway 4 years ago from Dublin, Ireland

      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 profile image

      Jennifer Stone 4 years ago from the Riverbank, England

      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

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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 profile image

      Angelo52 4 years ago from Central Florida

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

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

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

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
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      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

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

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • torrilynn profile image

      torrilynn 4 years ago

      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

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 4 years ago from sunny Florida

      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

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image
      Author

      Bill De Giulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

      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.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 4 years ago from Arizona

      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.