Bird Spotlight: Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vultures are a very common American bird and play a crucial part in our cycle of life.

The Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) is a member of the New World Vultures, and one of the most widespread members. Resembling a common tom turkey, the Turkey Vulture has a brownish-black body with a bright red head.

A Turkey Vulture flying low trying to sniff out some carrion. PHOTO CREDIT: Holmes

Members of the family Cathartidae, Turkey Vultures have a very keen sense of smell. Their heightened sense gives them the ability to smell carrion (dead animals) from over a mile away. But, unlike King Vultures and Black Vultures, who do not have a keen sense of smell, they have very weak and non-sharp beaks. This leads to them often flying with other vultures so they can lead them to carrion, making consumption easy for all vultures involved.

Groups of Turkey Vultures (called wakes) often roost in dead trees, roofs, and fences.

Dead trees are a favorite roosting spot for wakes. PHOTO CREDIT:  Holmes

Turkey Vultures are more common year round in the southern United States and South America. The cold winters lead them to migrate South and return when the weather is warm again.

Yellow-Summer range
Green- Year-round range  WIKIPEDIA

Turkey Vultures have an uncommon way of keeping cool in the summer; they urinate on their own legs. This process is called urohidrosis. The urine drys off and dissipates excess body heat, serving a similar purpose as human sweat; the urine also cleans bacteria from carrion off their legs.

Unlike Black Vultures, Turkey Vultures do not kill live animals when hungry. They instead linger in the wake of Black Vultures and eat the remains of any animal the Black Vultures killed. This act often leads farmers to blame Turkey Vultures instead of the true culprits, Black Vultures.

A wake of Turkey Vultures soaring the sky in search of food

Despite the good they do for the environment and our ecosystem, Vultures of all kinds are disliked by the general public.

“As a member of town council, I often hear homeowner complaints about them [vultures] congregating on their property. Since they are federally protected there are limited things we can do. Previous, the town police scare them away with firecrackers,” said Janet Bishop, teacher and member of Chatham town council. “We have also obtained permits to kill one and hang it from a branch in the area where they congregate. As federally protected animals, however, not just anyone can kill one.”

“One time a vulture threw up an intestine on my car,” said Kasey Martin, junior.

Turkey Vultures also have an amazing ability, there stomach acid has a ph balance of zero. This allows them to eat infected carrion without getting sick, and it stops the spread of deadly bacteria and diseases.

Turkey Vultures also lack a syrinx, the voice box of most birds, and can only make loud grunts or hisses.

Turkey Vultures manage to obtain their high soaring altitude by taking advantage of thermal vents, both natural and artificial.  They fly in a circular spiral in the vent to gain altitude and have a higher vantage point.

Turkey Vulture lacking a right secondary feather. PHOTO CREDIT: Holmes

During molt, Turkey Vultures, like most birds, try to keep their “empty” spots equal on both sides of their wings. Normally, if they’re seen with a missing feather on one side, there will soon be another on the opposite side to equal it out. This way of molting helps them stay airborne and have there normal ability to glide.