Cathartes aura

DescriptionTurkey vultures are seen on a whale watching boat tour with Eagle Wing Tours in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada on Vancouver Island.

Turkey vultures are large blackish brown birds. The flight feathers are a silvery gray. Turkey vultures have nearly featherless heads. The adult turkey vulture has a red head while the juvenile has a black head.
Length: 26 inches
Wingspan: 67 inches
Weight: 4 pounds
Incubation: Both parents incubate the eggs. Incubation lasts 38 to 41 days. Usually lay two eggs (can be one to three)
Fledge: 66 to 88 days

Bald Head

There is an important purpose to the vulture’s bald head.  When the vulture is eating carrion, it must often stick its head inside the carcass to reach the meat. A feathery head would capture unwanted pieces of the vulture’s meal, along with all the bacteria it hosts. The Latin name, Cathartes aura, means “golden purifier”. Turkey vultures are immune to botulism and other organisms in carrion that would kill other animals. Turkey vultures also destroy anthrax bacteria or hog cholera virus as it passes through their digestive tracts, thus helping to contain these diseases. After mealtime, the turkey vulture perches in the heat of the sun.  Here, whatever has managed to cling to the few bits of fuzz on their head will be baked off once and for all.

Diet/Feeding

The turkey vulture, contrary to popular belief, does not feed strictly on carrion.  This bird enjoys plant matter as well, including shoreline vegetation, pumpkin, and bits of other crops. The turkey vulture soars above the ground for most of the day, searching for food with its excellent eyesight and highly developed sense of smell.  The beak and talons of this vulture are the weakest of all the other vulture species.  For this reason, the bird will not even catch small prey like his cousin the black vulture. Turkey vultures can often be seen along roadsides, cleaning up road kill, or near rivers, feasting on washed-up fish – another of their favourite foods.

Legs

The turkey vulture often directs its urine right onto its legs. This serves two very important purposes: in the summertime, wetting the legs cools the vulture, as the urine evaporates (vultures cannot sweat like us). In addition, this urine contains strong acids from the vulture’s digestive system, which kill any bacteria that may remain on the bird’s legs from stepping in its meal.

Why They Vomit

The turkey vulture has few natural predators. Its primary form of defence is vomiting. The birds do not “projectile vomit,” as many would claim.  They simply cough up a lump of semi-digested meat. This foul-smelling substance deters most creatures intent on raiding a vulture nest.  It will also sting if the offending animal is close enough to get the vomit in its face or eyes.  In some cases, the vulture must rid its crop of a heavy, undigested meal in order to lift off and flee from a potential predator.

Flight

The turkey vulture is one of the most skilled gliders among the North American birds. It migrates across the continents with minimal energy output. Vultures launch themselves from their perches only after the morning air has warmed. Then, they circle upward, searching for pockets of rising warm air, or thermals.  Once they have secured a thermal, they allow it to carry them upward in rising circles.  When they reach the top of the thermal, they dive across the sky at speeds near 60 miles per hour, losing altitude until they reach another thermal.  All this is done without the necessity to flap.  In fact, the turkey vulture can glide for over 6 hours at a time without flapping a wing!

Sense of Smell

The turkey vulture is one of the only birds in North America with a sense of smell. This vulture relies both on its keen eyesight and powerful nose to search out food.

Nests

The turkey vulture nests on the ground and in caves. It does not construct a traditional nest, but rather scratches out an indentation in the soil.  Vulture nests are often found in abandoned barns and sheds, which provide safe hiding places similar to a cave of hollowed log.