The turkey vulture is one of the most widespread species of New World vultures. They get their name from their bright red head, similar to a turkey. Like other vultures, they are scavengers who feast on dead and decayed flesh.
It is sometimes referred to as the turkey buzzard in certain parts of North America, while in the Caribbean, it is often called the John crow or the carrion crow. There are several sub-species including the Chilean turkey vulture, the western turkey vulture, the tropical turkey vulture, and the eastern turkey vulture.
Size: Length: 24–32 in (62–81 cm)
Weight: 1.8 to 5.3 lb (0.8 to 2.41 kg)
Wingspan: 63–72 in (160–183 cm)
Body and Coloration: The bright red head of the turkey vulture is small compared to the rest of its body. The beak is short and hooked, with an ivory coloration. Their eyes have an incomplete pair of eyelashes on the upper lid and two rows on the lower eyelid. The irises of their eyes are greyish-brown.
The legs and feet of this vulture are usually pinkish-red, though they mostly appear white as a result of being covered with their feces.
The plumage is greyish black, though the underside appears lighter when they are in flight. Also, while flying, the tail seems tall and slim.
These vultures are found throughout the Americas, ranging from southern Canada to Cape Horn in Chile.
They are found in open woodlands, which allow them to fly with ease with no trees to bother them. Also, these habitats allow for them to easily roost and nest on the ground. Their preferred habitats include open grasslands, deserts, foothills, shrublands, and wetlands.
Like all vultures, these birds primarily feed on carrion. They prefer the dead flesh of mammals but have also been observed consuming dead amphibians, birds, fish, insects, and reptiles as well.
Sometimes, when food source remain scarce, they will feed on plant matter like fruits and shoreline vegetation.
On average, a turkey vulture lives for 16 years in the wild There have been reports of turkey vultures living for up to 45 years in captivity.
These vultures live in large groups, which sometimes even include vultures of other species like black vultures.
The turkey vulture will often spread their wings, often called a horaltic stance, to serve multiple functions, including baking off bacteria, drying their wings, and warming their bodies. They are seen doing this more often after a damp or rainy night.
Similar to storks, these birds will defecate on their legs to keep themselves cool, and the uric acid from the feces kills off any accumulated bacteria.
They soaring at lower altitudes, with the help of thermal winds
Its vocalization is limited to low hisses and grunts, as it lacks a voice box or syrinx, incapable of calling or singing.
Though some birds in the northern areas migrate, most turkey vultures tend to permanently reside in a few habitats.
Turkey vultures have few natural predators, including bald eagles, golden eagles, great horned eagles, and red-tailed hawks. Sometimes foxes and dogs are capable of killing turkey vultures, though this is quite rare.
They have strong senses of smell and sight. This helps them to locate rotting carcasses to feed on.
There are no feathers on the turkey vulture’s head, leaving it completely naked. This is more of a boon, helping keep the bird in good health. The vulture’s trait of digging into the carcass to obtain food is not unknown. Had there been feathers, dirt and bacteria would have accumulated there, making them more susceptible to infection.
Their stomachs produce a powerful acid strong enough to kill anthrax and influenza.
To defend themselves, these vultures will sometimes vomit their stomach contents to deter any potential threats.
Mating and Reproduction
The mating period of this vulture varies, with those found in the southern US breeding from March to June. Meanwhile, the vultures residing further up north begin their mating period much later, continuing till August.
Several turkey vultures of both sexes will form a circle and begin hopping while flapping their wings as part of a ritual to attract a mate. Nesting sites tend to be in easily protected areas like burrows, caves, cliffs, inside hollow trees, rock crevices, and thickets.
In general, females lay 2 eggs, though the average is between one and three. These eggs are cream-colored, with brown or lavender markings on their ends. Once 30-40 days pass in which both parents incubate the eggs, they hatch. At birth, the chicks are helpless, depending wholly on their parents for food for around 10-11 weeks. After approximately 70-80 days, the fledglings transition into their juvenile stage. The juveniles become independent a week later, though the family unit stays together until fall.
As per the IUCN, the turkey vulture is classified as “Least Concern” or “LC”.
They are under the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 in the States. In Canada, they are protected by the Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds. The Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds and Game Mammals protects the vulture in Mexico.
The turkey vulture is often considered threatening by either acting as vectors for diseases like anthrax and hog cholera or hunting calves. However, these are incorrect assumptions, as most viruses are destroyed by passing through the digestive tract of these birds. At the same time, their weak limbs and claws do not possess the strength to carry off a calf. Instead they gather along with the black vultures to devour on the carcass.
Due to their heightened sense of smell, other carrion eaters like the King and black vultures as well as condors, often follow the turkey vulture to sources of food. The other buzzards in turn, tear the hides of the dead animals open, helping the turkey vulture to access the innards for consumption.
The Looney Tunes animated character Beaky Buzzard is a young turkey vulture.