The American Vulture: Nature's Ugly Clean-Up Crew
American Turkey Vulture
Is That A Vulture?
Cathartes Aura is the scientific name for the Turkey Vulture, they can be found all over the United States. Until a few weeks ago I had no idea that there was an American vulture or that they lived in the State of Ohio. I first encountered one as it swooped down over the hood of my car one afternoon and and landed near a dead raccoon on the side of the road and started to feed. After seeing this bird, I turned around to see what it was, I thought at first this bird was a Hawk, but after seeing the bright red bald head, I knew right away that this bird was not a Hawk. After talking to a friend about the bird I had seen, he told me that they were turkey buzzards and that they are all over the place. He told me sees them flying around over the wooded part of his yard all of the time looking for something dead to eat. After looking the vulture up on several web sites, I learned some new things about them.
Turkey Vultures rarely eat live food, they have on occassion been observed feeding on weak birds or animals, put primarily eat carrion and in my area carrion is abundant. I live in a rural area with many back roads that are full of curves and hills. Many drivers speed on these roads and Hitting wildlife as they cross the road is a common occurrence. The vultures pictured to the right are feeding on a deer killed by a speeding car that was going so fast that when it struck the dear it literally exploded, sending parts of the carcass to either side of the road. The driver of the car was severely injured and the car was totally destroyed. The Vulturefeeds on this deer carcass for close to three days.
The American Turkey Vulture Is Not Related To African Vultures
Turkey vultures are not related to African Vultures, but have the same traits. They are called Turkey Vultures because their head resembles that of a wild turkey. Some scientists believe that the turkey vulture is part of the Stork and Ibises species while others believe that the turkey vulture is part of the raptor family. A few scientists believe that the turkey vulture is distinct enough to be placed in their own species category. DNA testing indicates that turkey vultures have no common ancestry with African vultures.
Male and female turkey vultures look identical, there are no visible gender differences between males and females making visual identification of males and females impossible. Turkey vultures have bald heads because they put their heads into rotting corpses to feed, being bald is purely for hygienic reasons. A feather covered head would allow rotting meat to stick to the vultures head and bacteria would form essentially killing the vulture. Turkey vultures weigh up to six pounds and are 25 to 23 inches long, they can have a wingspan of up to six feet, large enough to cover a windshield if one were to suddenly glide over the front of a moving vehicle.
I have observed these birds soaring in large circles for hours, during my observation of these birds in flight, I have never seen one flap its wings while it is soaring, even as it is leaving my field of view. They are excellent at riding the winds, the only time I have seen a turkey vulture flap its wings is to take off or land. Flapping its wings to take flight apparently takes a lot of energy and once they are airborne they conserve energy by gliding on thermals (hot pockets of air), they can also ride air current deflected off of the ground near mountains or hills.
Turkey Vultures are not aggressive, they live in large groups and leave only to feed independently. They can be seen doing a spread wing pose, called the Horaltic Pose, it is not clearly known why they use this stance, but it has been suggested it may be used to raise or lower their body temperature. Observed Turkey Vultures have been seen spreading their wings mostly in the morning when the sun's intensity reaches a level high enough to raise their body temperature.
Here are a couple more interesting facts. Although it has few natural enemies, if it feels it is in danger, a turkey vulture will vomit to ward off predators. The vomit has a putrid odor that will allegedly ward off the predator. Scientists studying the turkey vulture have indicated that the vomit contains a lump of meat that may distract a predator allowing the vulture to escape as it eats the vomit left by the vulture. A turkey vulture will also vomit after eating too much to reduce body weight. A turkey vulture directs its urine down its legs. Urinating on its legs helps to cool it off on hot days since it does not have sweat glands and acids in the urine from its digestive system kills bacteria that may be on the turkey vultures legs after stepping on a dead animal while feeding. They are also a protected bird, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 keeps turkey vultures from being harmed, so they cannot be legally hunted or kept as a pet.
If you want to learn more about turkey vultures, information can be found on wikipedia and other websites by googling "Turkey Vultures". I found these birds to be very interesting and was able to spend an hour or two watching them as they fed and interacted with each other. I also found myself remembering the "Jungle Book" scene where "Mogley" came across the three vultures in a meadow arguing about what they were going to do for the day and then breaking into song by singing "We're Your Friend".