Turkey VultureCathartes aura

adult
Rob Curtis/VIREO
adult
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult
Arthur Morris/VIREO
adult
Glenn Bartley/VIREO
adult
Richard Crossley/VIREO
adults
Jukka Jantunen/VIREO

Description

A familiar sight in the sky over much of North America is the dark, long-winged form of the Turkey Vulture, soaring high over the landscape. Most birds are believed to have a very poor sense of smell, but the Turkey Vulture is an exception, apparently able to find carrion by odor.

Habitat

Widespread over open country, woods, deserts, foothills. Most common over open or semi-open country, especially within a few miles of rocky or wooded areas providing secure nesting sites. Generally avoids densely forested regions. Unlike Black Vulture, regularly forages over small offshore islands.

Feeding Diet

Mostly carrion. Feeds mainly on dead animals, preferring those recently dead (that is, relatively fresh carrion). Occasionally feeds on decaying vegetable matter, live insects, or live fish in drying-up ponds.

Feeding Behavior

Seeks carrion by soaring over open or partly wooded country, watching the ground and watching the actions of other scavengers. Can also locate some carrion by odor: Unlike most birds, has a well-developed sense of smell.

Nesting

As a part of pair formation, several birds gather in circle on ground, and perform ritualized hopping movements around perimeter of circle with wings partly spread. In the air, one bird may closely follow another, the two birds flapping and diving. Nest sites are in sheltered areas, such as inside hollow trees or logs, in crevices in cliffs, under rocks, in caves, inside dense thickets, or in old buildings. Little or no nest built; eggs laid on debris or on flat bottom of nest site. Eggs: 2, sometimes 1, rarely 3. Whitish, blotched with brown and lavender. Incubation is by both parents, usually 34-41 days. Young: One parent remains with young much of time at first. Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. If young are approached in nest, they defend themselves by hissing and regurgitating. Age of young at first flight about 9-10 weeks.

Eggs

2, sometimes 1, rarely 3. Whitish, blotched with brown and lavender. Incubation is by both parents, usually 34-41 days. Young: One parent remains with young much of time at first. Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. If young are approached in nest, they defend themselves by hissing and regurgitating. Age of young at first flight about 9-10 weeks.

Young

One parent remains with young much of time at first. Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. If young are approached in nest, they defend themselves by hissing and regurgitating. Age of young at first flight about 9-10 weeks.

Conservation

Thought to have declined during 20th century in parts of North America, but current populations apparently stable.

Range

Present year-round in much of southern United States, but northern birds migrate long distances, some reaching South America. Migrates in flocks, and may travel long distances without feeding.

Listen

hissing grunts #2
hissing grunts #1

Similar Species

adult

Zone-tailed Hawk

Seen soaring at a distance over rugged country in the southwest, the Zone-tail looks remarkably like a Turkey Vulture. It may be overlooked even by birders who are searching for it. This close resemblance may fool other creatures as well: Small animals in the west learn to ignore the abundant and harmless Turkey Vultures, and they may fail to notice an approaching Zone-tailed Hawk until it is too late.

adult

Black Vulture

Abundant in the southeast, scarce in the southwest is this broad-winged scavenger. In low flight, it proceeds with several quick flaps followed by a flat-winged glide; when rising thermals provide good lift, it soars very high above the ground. Usually seen in flocks. Shorter wings and tail make it appear smaller than Turkey Vulture, but looks are deceptive: body size is about the same, and aggressive Black Vultures often drive Turkey Vultures away from food.

adult

Bald Eagle

The emblem bird of the United States, majestic in its appearance. It is not always so majestic in habits: it often feeds on carrion, including dead fish washed up on shore, and it steals food from Ospreys and other smaller birds. At other times, however, it is a powerful predator. Seriously declining during much of the 20th century, the Bald Eagle has made a comeback in many areas since the 1970s. Big concentrations can be found wintering along rivers or reservoirs in some areas.

adult

California Condor

A holdover from prehistoric times, the great condor is one of our largest and most magnificent birds -- and one of the rarest. Soaring over wilderness crags, feeding on carcasses of large dead animals, reproducing very slowly, it was not well suited to survival in modern-day southern California. Headed toward extinction in the 1980s, the last birds were brought in from the wild in 1987, to be bred in captivity for eventual release into the wild again.

adult

Golden Eagle

This magnificent bird is widespread in the wilder country of North America, Europe, and Asia. About the same size as the Bald Eagle, the Golden is less of a scavenger and more of a predator, regularly taking prey up to the size of foxes and cranes. The Golden Eagle was important to many Native American tribes, who admired the eagle's courage and strength, and who ascribed mystical powers to the bird and even to its feathers.

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