Birds of Prey: The Turkey Vulture
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
- 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