Turkey Vulture

 Cathartes aura

What’s in a name? Sometimes a lot! Think of the early colonists for a moment. Coming to the new world, they had heard about how good the turkeys were there. With bare red skin on the head and throat they would be easy to identify. Then it turned out they were also easy to find and shoot. The proud hunters would carry home their trophies and hand them over to their wives to prepare. Imagine them all sitting around the table when the feast is brought in.

Then imagine them all feeling sick when they took their first bites. While the head of a Turkey Vulture may look a bit like that of a Wild Turkey to someone who has never seen one before, that is where the similarities end. They don’t taste very good at all. And there are records of our founding mothers and fathers being disappointed by that fact.

One would be inclined to believe that the bad taste was due to what Turkey Vultures themselves eat. In other words – dead stuff. After all, you are what you eat. That bare red head the vulture has which caused it to be confused with a Wild Turkey, developed to make it easier for the bird to get its beak inside the carcass of a dead animal where all the tasty bits are. Not that vultures wouldn’t prefer fresh food. The problem is that they have evolved in such a way that they are unable to make a kill themselves. So, they have to wait until another animal does it for them. Around here, we tend to be that other animal. The many deer killed along the highways generally keep vultures in good supply.

Finding the dead food source can be complicated though. Usually, when we see vultures, they are flying in circles high overhead. Flying may not be the best term. Gliding maybe? Vulture flight requires daytime updrafts of warm air. These are called thermals. The birds seldom flap their wings. Once they get high enough, they can circle and coast from one updraft of air to another. While doing so, they are constantly on the lookout for dead animals to eat below. They also keep an eye out for other vultures who may have already found a food source.

Some scientists believed that this was the only way a vulture found its food. Others thought the birds did this by smell alone. It turns out that Turkey Vultures use both. The problem is that they cannot smell a decaying carcass until it’s at least around twelve hours old. So, unless they can spot it from the air, their food tends to be less fresh and more like leftovers.

So, they eat dead stuff. We shouldn’t hold that against them. They may also defecate on their legs when the weather is hot. Hence their frequent whitish appearance. Hmmm. When threatened near their nest, the birds may also vomit a putrid mess in much the same way a skunk sprays. But, don’t hold that against them either.

Turkey Vultures tend to mate for life. (Better than most people today!) They also tend to return to the same nest sites year after year. That’s right. Turkey Vultures are actually migratory. The one’s we see around here all year long are probably different birds. Turkey Vultures may travel and nest anywhere between Canada and Cape Horn. That’s quite a range.

When they do decide to nest, the female first leads the male in a series of soaring maneuvers. Finding a nesting site is much easier than building a nest. Vultures prefer isolated recesses in caves, hollow trees, or even buildings. There is no nest material. Two eggs are laid right on the ground. Both sexes share the incubation duties. The eggs hatch in five to six weeks and the young fledge in another six weeks. Young birds are fed on the regurgitated carrion provided by mom and dad. This can make the nests smell especially bad and only the bravest of raccoons and skunks are willing to brave what has been termed the “barf barrier” to attack the young birds.

Juveniles have smooth, brown heads instead of the red, wrinkled ones of the adults. Their beaks also have dark tips. (Those of adults are a uniform white or ivory.) The young birds join their elders in communal roost at night. These can be rather large affairs and are frequently the subject of derision by humans who may happen to live underneath one. Articles in the newspapers chronicle neighborhoods’ efforts to rid themselves of Turkey Vulture roosts.

If not located over your house, however, these roosts can be fascinating to observe. The birds generally settle in about an hour before sunset. The assembly may serve as some sort of communications center. Ornithologists are still investigating the possibility. It’s nice to think of a bunch of vultures getting ready to go to bed at night trading stories about the size of the dead deer they had eaten that day.

Speaking again of food, one vulture favorite is dead snakes. On any dish, the eyes seem to be the first to go. And what about skunks? Yes, Turkey Vultures enjoy a good dead skunk from time to time. Although, they are smart enough to eat everything except those nasty scent glands. Surprisingly, vultures have also been observed eating vegetable matter. Rotting pumpkins were specifically mentioned. Regardless of the menu, after each meal the birds regurgitate pellets which contain those items they were unable to digest.

With the many types of food they eat, it is not surprising that Turkey Vultures have developed a very sophisticated immune system.

Turkey Vultures begin to leave northern areas in the fall and head south. Much of the North American population heads to Mexico and Central America. In the rainforest, where visibility can be a problem, they definitely need to rely more on their sense of smell when it comes to finding food.

For many years, the Turkey Vulture was referred to as a Turkey Buzzard. Some people still call them “buzzards.” The true buzzard (Buteo buteo) is a European hawk. A group of vultures is termed a “cast”, “committee”, “meal’, “vortex”, or “wake”.


Carroll County Chapter of Maryland Ornithological Society

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