Turkey Vultures are large, common birds soaring high in the sky, scouring the land below for carrion.
Turkey Vultures are large dark birds with long, broad wings. They are bigger than other raptors except eagles and condors, have long "fingers" at their wingtips, and long tails that extend past their pale toe tips in flight. When soaring, Turkey Vultures hold their wings slightly raised, making a ‘V’ when seen head-on. They appear black from a distance but up close are dark brown with a featherless red head, pale legs, and pale bill. Adults in the tropics have a brighter red head with a contrasting white collar. Juveniles, however, have an ashy-gray colored head. While most of their body and forewing are dark, the undersides of the flight feathers (along the trailing edge and wingtips) are paler, giving a two-toned appearance.
Turkey Vultures are smaller than an eagle but larger than a Red-tailed Hawk. They are 25.2-31.9 inches (64-81 centimeters) in length and weigh 70.5 ounces (2,000 grams) with a wingspan of 66.9-70.1 inches (170-178 centimeters).
Turkey Vultures can be found from southern Canada to northern South America. They are residents to long-distant migrants, migrating southwards. Turkey Vultures can be found in open areas around food sources. They are particularly noticeable along roadsides and at landfills. At night, they roost in trees, on rocks, and other high secluded spots.
Turkey Vultures eat carrion, which they find largely by their excellent sense of smell. They mostly they eat mammals but also feed on reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish, and even invertebrates. They prefer freshly dead animals, but often have to wait for their meal to soften in order to pierce the skin. Turkey Vultures are deft foragers, targeting the softest bits first and are even known to leave aside the scent glands of dead skunks. Thankfully for them, they appear to have excellent immune systems, happily feasting on carcasses without contracting bad food related illnesses. Unlike their Black Vulture relatives, Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey.
Turkey Vultures nest in rock crevices, caves, ledges, thickets, mammal burrows and hollow logs, fallen trees, abandoned hawk or heron nests, and abandoned buildings. These nest sites are typically much cooler (by 13°F or more) than their surroundings, and isolated from human disturbance. Though they often feed near humans, Turkey Vultures prefer to nest far away from civilization. They don’t build full nests. They may scrape out a spot in the soil or leaf litter, pull aside obstacles, or arrange scraps of vegetation or rotting wood. Once found, many of these nest sites may be used repeatedly for a decade or more.
Turkey Vultures have one brood with one to three eggs in each per year. The eggs are creamy white tinged with gray, blue, or green, and spotted with purple to brown. They are 2.6-3.0 inches (6.5-7.5 centimeters) in length and 1.7-2.1 inches (4.4-5.3 centimeters) in width. Incubation period is 28-40 days and nesting period is 60-84 days. At hatching, the hatchlings are downy, often blind, and defenseless except for a quiet hiss.
The Turkey Vulture's distinctive slow, teetering flight style probably helps the bird soar at low altitudes, where it is best able to use its amazing sense of smell to find carrion. At other times they may soar high on thermals and form mixed flocks or kettles. On the ground they move with ungainly hops and are less agile than Black Vultures. Often, especially in the morning, they can be seen standing erect, wings spread in the sun, presumably to warm up, cool off, or dry off.
Outside of the breeding season, Turkey Vultures form roosts of dozens to a hundred individuals.
When Turkey Vultures court, pairs perform a "follow flight" display where one bird leads the other through twisting, turning, and flapping flights for a minute or so, repeated over periods as long as 3 hours.
Migrating flocks can number in the thousands. At carcasses, several Turkey Vultures may gather but typically only one feeds at a time, chasing the others off and making them wait their turn. Despite their size, Turkey Vultures are often driven off by smaller Black Vultures, Crested Caracaras, Zone-tailed Hawks, and other species.
Turkey Vultures lack the vocal organs to make proper songs. Most of their vocalizations are a form of low, guttural hiss made when they are irritated or vying for a better spot on a carcass. They also may give a low, nasal whine while in flight.
Turkey Vultures have increased in number across North America recently. These birds were threatened by side-effects of the pesticide DDT, but today they are among the most common large carnivorous birds in North America. However, because they live on rotting meat, like California Condors, they can fall victim to poisons or lead in dead animals. Other threats include trapping and killing due to erroneous fears that they spread disease. Far from it, vultures actually reduce the spread of disease.
- The oldest recorded Turkey Vulture was at least 16 years and 10 months old when it was found in Ohio, the same state where it had been banded.
- Turkey Vultures are also called Aura Gallipavo in Spanish and Urubu à tête rouge in French.