Natural History of Bird Species: Turkey Vultures
Turkey Vultures are Buzzards
- Turkey Vulture Common Name
- Cathartes aura Biological Name
- Family Cathartidae Biological Family
Turkey Vultures are Buzzards. If you live in North America you have probably seen a Turkey Vulture soaring overhead in open areas. Movies and television scenes often show circling vultures/buzzards waiting for someone or something to die. So they are rather dramatic and familiar birds to most of us. Some people call them Buzzards. There actually are other kinds of vultures, but here the bird we discuss is the common Turkey Vulture.
Description: The Turkey Vulture is a big bird, looking like an eagle or a hawk to the untrained eye. Its wingspan may be as much as 6 ft across and the body is nearly 3 feet long. Since we usually see them from below it helps to know their familiar “V” shape silouette and the outline of greyish-white feathers on the underside of the wings. Those silvery-grey feathers are distinctive in comparison to the dark brown or black feathers of the rest of the bird. With your binoculars you may be able to see their tiny red head has no feathers. Adult male and female birds look pretty much alike though the females are usually a bit bigger. Young birds are likely to have a grey head instead of red.
Habitat: Turkey Vultures are common in the United States and southern Canada and some will migrate to South America. They appear to be cavity nesters with little skill in nest building, preferring a cave or burrow or hollow tree or abandoned building for their nesting area. I have seen groups of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures roosting in neighboring trees when they are not nesting or feeding. It is an eerie sight in the morning fog!
Habit/Behavior: Turkey Vultures are somewhat comical or grotesque, depending on your point of view. On the ground they are ungainly walkers and take to flight readily when startled. From a distance they appear to be about the same size and shape as turkeys in the grasses. (Hence the name Turkey Vulture). They have no feathers on their heads because they eat carrion (dead animals). This prevents parasites when they stick their naked heads into the rotting bodies of their main course. They have excellent vision. And some say they have a superb sense of smell which is different from most other birds. So by soaring overhead they can see dead animals or observe other scavengers feeding at a distance and their particular sense of smell guides them to rotting flesh through the edges of the forest cover. We see them most often along the roadways eating road-killed animals or along the shorelines eating dead fish. Both parents gather food and tend the young. If you approach a nest with young you may be greeted with the unpleasant display of what they had for their most recent meal. Regurgitating is an effective defense behavior!
Status: Believe it or not, these common scavengers are protected in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Their population seems stable or increasing in recent years. Airplanes are a danger to Turkey Vultures and Turkey Vultures are a danger to both propeller and jet propelled planes, and even to rocket launches. A friend of mine actually works at a New England airport where it is his primary duty to keep all sorts of birds out of the way of aircraft.
© bydpb, 2008/ updated 2011