Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

Cathartus aura
L 24-28" / WS 63-71"

 Turkey Vultures are large birds, only slightly smaller than eagles, but behave differently and live very different lives than Eagles. They are social and can often be seen in large groups on migration, when foraging for food year-round, and at communal roosting sites. They feed strictly on carrion (animal carcasses) soaring for hours in loose groups seeking out food by smell as well as by sound. When doing so, birders can easily recognize them, even from far away, based on their obvious manner of flight. They often perch in the open on dead snags, radio towers, and other man-made structures, and hold their wings outstretched to "sunbathe", which helps condition their flight feathers, and is thought to supply them with vitamin D (as with all birds). Mostly non-vocal, Turkey Vultures occasionally hiss when aggressive or scared, and the call is very raspy hollow, and eerie – perfect for a scary movie scene.

Turkey Vultures are common breeders from southern Canada throughout the United States (March-August), and are especially abundant throughout the Southeast. Populations are expanding north, and the increase in count data at northerly bird migration sites, and frequency of winter reports at the northern limits of their known range help support this observation. Most southern breeders are year-round residents, but northern populations are migratory. The Eastern population presumably winters mainly throughout the Southeast but as far north as the northeastern states, but birds from the Great Plains and west winter as far south as northern South America.

Shape

  • Perched, they appear bulky with particularly small heads.
  • Legs and feet are weak compared with large raptors, and talons are much less sharply curved.
  • Long, broad wings, and long, broad tails that are wedge-shaped or rounded at the tip.
  • Head is small in relative comparison to eagles and hawks, exaggeratedly so because it lack feathers.

Flight

  • Buoyant and fly in a wobbly manner, constantly swaying from side to side, making them distinct from the larger raptors, which are steady in flight.
  • Appear slow moving in the air, soar in wide, lazy circles.
  • Hold their wings in a strong dihedral most times, but glide with modified dihedral, but flat-winged in light winds at times.
  • Have lofty, easy wing beats that end abruptly on upstroke.

Plumage

  • Two age classes, adult and juvenile, male and female identical in plumage.
  • Black underneath with silvery flight feathers, black eyes, and "bald" heads with wart-like tubercules on the face. Eastern birds have a more prominent "warts" than Western birds. Fairly uniform blackish-brown above.
  • Head and bill grayish on juvenile, changing to reddish head and dusky-tipped white bill at about 4-6 months old, but timing varies in complete change of bill to pure white and head to pure reddish on adults.
  • By second fall, most juveniles and adults indistinguishable.

Migration

  • Seen during migration at eastern migration sites in spring from early-March through May, and fall from September through November. Great Lakes sites such as Hawk Cliff, ONT, Lake Erie Metropark and Brockway Mt., MI, and Braddock Bay and Derby Hill, NY have daily high counts of several thousand.
  • East Coast sites, such as Cape May Point, NJ, Kiptopeke State Park, VA, and Curry Hammock, FL see significant numbers of Turkey Vultures in November.
  • Western coastal sites, such as Marin Headlands, see fair numbers of vultures in fall, but movements are perhaps a dispersal rather than true migration.
  • Intermountain West sites, such as the Goshute Mts., NV and Wasatch Mts., UT, see good numbers every fall from September through October, and spring (Wasatch) from March to early May.
  • Corpus Christi, TX also sees large numbers in fall. The largest migration of Turkey Vultures in the world occurs at Veracruz, Mexico, where over a million can be seen in a day in November! Massive numbers also move through Panama.

Distribution

(Map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds. For dynamic distribution maps, visit the eBird website.)

Turkey Vulture map