Photo Credit: Dave Cagnolatti & Weeks Bay Reserve Foundation
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Cathartes aura
OTHER NAMES: Buzzard, John Crow, Carrion Crow.
DESCRIPTION: Turkey vultures are large birds with brownish-black feathers. When on the ground, they resemble a wild turkey from a distance, hence the name turkey vulture. Adults have a red featherless head and light red legs and feet. Juvenile turkey vultures usually have a black head and may be confused with black vultures from a distance. Turkey vultures have a long, light red beak with a tan tip. Healthy adults may be 25 to 32 inches long with up to six foot wingspans and weigh up to six pounds. In flight, the leading edge of the underside of the wing appears dark brown or black with the rest of the wing appearing gray or white. On the ground, turkey vultures can often be seen standing with wings spread. This pose helps to warm the body, dry off the wings, and “bake” off any bacteria that may remain on the head or feathers.
DISTRIBUTION: Turkey vultures are the most widespread of the New World vultures and occur throughout the United States, southern Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America. In the United States, turkey vultures migrate in large groups from their northern range to the southern United States, Mexico or Central and South America during the winter. They occur year round in the southeastern United States, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
HABITAT: Turkey vultures can be found in a variety of habitats. They prefer open areas, but are found along coastlines, rivers, lakes, deserts, plains, and inland forests.
FEEDING HABITS: Turkey vultures are primarily scavengers readily feeding on carcasses of dead animals, including road kill and dead fish that have washed up on the banks of rivers, ponds or lakes, but will sometimes feed on plant matter and small insects and rodents. Turkey vultures are unusual among birds in that they have a highly developed sense of smell. This sense of smell and very keen eyesight enable them to find food rather easily. Turkey vultures can often be seen circling on patches of warm rising air, called thermals. From aloft, they glide across the sky searching for food. Turkey vultures are very efficient flyers and can glide for hours without flapping their wings.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: Turkey vultures usually nest in caves or on rock ledges but also use abandoned barns, sheds or hollow logs. Turkey vultures don’t construct traditional nests but prefer to lay their eggs in shallow indentions. Turkey vultures raise only one clutch per year and usually lay two eggs at a time, with both parents sharing the responsibilities of incubation. The eggs hatch in 38 to 41 days. The young are fed with regurgitated food from both parents. Juvenile turkey vultures leave the nest after 70 to 80 days.
Kirk, D.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1998. Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura). In The Birds of North America, No. 339 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
Weidensaul, Scott. 1996. Raptors: The Birds of Prey. Lyons and Burford, Publishers, New York, NY. 382
AUTHOR: Kevin Pugh, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries