Virtual Nature Trail

Common Name: Turkey Vulture
Scientific Name: Cathartes aura

(Information for this species page was gathered in part by Ms. Jackie Shane in Biology 220W at Penn State New Kensington in Spring 2009)

Turkey Vulture - image credit Lee Karney, US Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is the most abundant and most widely distributed avian scavenger in the New World. It is a large (28 inches long weighing 4 pounds with a wing span up to 6 feet), dark bird that is easily recognized on the ground by its featherless, red head and also in the air due to its broad, “eagle-sized” wings that characteristically wobble just a bit as it soars in great circles in the updrafts.

Image credit - Lee Karney, US Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library

Turkey vultures are found all across southern Canada, the continental United States, Mexico, Central America, and down to South America to Tierra del Fuego. Birds in the northern regions of this broad distribution migrate to warmer habitats in the winter while birds in the warmer to milder regions of this range stay in place all year round. The vultures in the northeastern United States tend to migrate to Florida or Texas, while birds in the northwestern United States migrate all the way down to South America possibly as far as Argentina. These northern birds are very recognizable in their winter ranges since they tend to be larger and possibly much more aggressive toward and dominant over the smaller, native vultures. Migrating flocks can be extremely large (thousands of individuals!). Migrating turkey vultures, though, cannot fly at night (they require the thermal updrafts generated by the heat of the day) and, so, each day must seek out secluded roosts as evening approaches.

The turkey vulture is an extremely gregarious bird. They roost in large, communal groups in specific locations that may be used for many generations. During the day, smaller, foraging groups of turkey vultures may pause in the high branches of a tree or on the roof of an abandoned building forming a group called a “wake.” Actively foraging and flying turkey vultures form great flocks of individuals that can rise together in circular paths in the thermals of the heated atmosphere. These swirling flocks are called “kettles” because of their resemblance to heated water boiling up in a heated pan.

Feeding Behavior
Turkey vultures use their extremely well developed sense of smell to locate a carcass. This is most unusual since most avian scavengers and birds of prey utilize vision to find their food. This reliance on scent detection explains why foraging turkey vultures soar at lower altitudes than other types of vultures, and it may also explain their “wobbling” behaviors in flight (this motion may increase their ability to detect and precisely locate a scent source). Use of scent also enables turkey vultures to find buried or cached carcasses that had been hidden by some terrestrial carnivore. The greater abundance of turkey vultures in open or semi-open landscapes is also probably related to their particular method of finding food. Highways all over North and South America have become prime foraging habitats for this species.

Turkey vultures have extremely weak feet and blunt talons. Thus, they are not able to readily kill prey or rip at a carcass with anything other than their sharp, curved beak. They also show a distinct preference for relatively fresh kills and will not readily consume rotting carcasses. They are relatively timid birds who will, if challenged at a carcass by another scavenger (like an eagle or a black vulture), regurgitate their ingested materials for the challenger to consume. At a carcass, turkey vultures feed in an organized, individual manner, each waiting for their turn by exhibiting a behavior called “queuing.”

Turkey vultures respond to threats and danger primarily by vomiting on the source of the danger. Since their stomach contents are typically a very acidic slurry of the flesh of a dead animal, this behavior is quite an effective deterrent against aggression.

Turkey vultures are very long-lived birds. Life spans up to 25 years have been recorded. They have few predators except for a “usual suspects” list of potential nest predators (raccoons, skunks, foxes, opossums, snakes, etc.).

The impact of DDT on egg shell stability reduced the turkey vulture population slightly, but the banning of this pesticide has led to a completely recovered and, possibly, growing worldwide population. Potential lethal impacts of lead ingestion (from bullets and pellets in hunter-killed animals), though, are of a concern in turkey vultures. Turkey vultures have also been killed by farmers and ranchers out of concern that these carrion consuming birds will spread pathogens and diseases from carcass to carcass. The great efficiency of the turkey vulture’s digestive system, though, very effectively destroys ingested pathogens (turkey vulture fecal materials are completely free of any pathogenic organisms).

Mating and Reproduction
Turkey vultures mate for life, but upon the death of a partner an individual may take a new mate. Courtship behaviors include a “dance” involving raised wings and feet and long, following flights led by the male. Nests are located in individually selected locations not far from the pair’s communal roost. The term “nest” might actually be a bit of an exaggeration in describing the egg site for a turkey vulture. It is typically a site located on the ground (in a cave, hollow log or tree stump, or in a dense mass of vegetation) where soil and leaf litter and pieces of rotting wood have been pushed aside to make a spot for the one to three laid eggs. In a given area there will be relatively few specific locations that will be suitable for a turkey vulture to build its nest. A chosen site, though, may be used for a decade or more. Both parents incubate the eggs and also the nestlings. Both parents feed the rapidly growing young. Incubation time is between 28 and 40 days, and nestling development times are between 60 and 84 days. So, at a maximum, a reproducing pair of turkey vultures may spend over four months in intense breeding and rearing of their young.

In parts of their North American range turkey vultures are referred to as “buzzards.” Oddly, the term “buzzard” specifically describes a group of European and African birds of prey (hawks). How that specific avian name ever became attached to the turkey vulture remains a mystery.

The turkey vulture is nobody’s favorite bird. They are not beautiful to look at up close, they make no beautiful songs (in fact they lack the organ of song generation (the syrinx) completely!), and they eat dead animals. Their role, though, in clearing and cleaning up our terrestrial ecosystems is vital to the health of us all!

Nature Trail Logo

The Pennsylvania State University ©2002 

Creative Commons License This site is licensed under a Creative Commons License. View Terms of Use.

This page was last updated on July 28, 2014  

Thank you for visiting Penn State New Kensington.