Turkey Vulture Facts | Anatomy, Diet Habitat, Behavior

The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is the most common of the cathartid species. It is thought to occur from Canadian border all the way to the southern tip of South America. Except for the subspecies C. aura aura turkey vultures are non-migratory. They belong to the true vultures of the New World and their physical appearance reminds us of true vultures of the Old World. Turkey vultures are the prominent scavengers in North America.

Turkey Vulture Facts

Anatomy

  • Turkey vultures generally grow up to 25.2–31.9 in (64–81 cm) in length with the weight measuring up to 1.9–4.4 lb (0.85–2 kg).
  • They are one of the largest birds of North America. The wingspan measures about 160–183 cm (63–72 in).
  • Turkey vultures living in Florida are apt to be heavier than those found in Venezuela.
  • Females are only slightly larger than the males but they both appear to be of the same size.
  • The adult turkey vulture is covered with blackish down with brown underparts.
  • Adult vultures are recognized by their red head and neck with no hair. They have a white beak. Young birds however show black head and beak.
  • Turkey vultures have a greater wingspan in comparison to the black vultures.
  • Unlike eagles, turkey vultures got talons on their toes that are not adapted to holding a prey. The naked legs of vultures may only allow the bird to roost at a high perch.
  • While California condors lack sense of smell turkey vultures seem to rely on smelling sense and their remarkable eyesight.
turkey vulture facts
Turkey Vulture ©www.fallsoftheohio.org

Range & Habitat

  • Turkey vultures are most likely to breed in the southern Canada, Mexico, to as far as Tierra del Fuego as well as Falkland and Caribbean Islands.
  • They are thought to occupy a wide variety of habitats ranging from forests and deserts to the high plateaus of the Andes.
  • Turkey vultures typically do not migrate but those living on the Andes are likely to go down to the lower habitats in winter. Similarly some of the subspecies that are found in the western United States will move to the south.
  • It spends summer on the Long Island, Hudson Valley.
  • They also make homes in scrublands, subtropical forests, foothills, open country, grasslands, and wetlands.

Behavior

  • Turkey vultures are outstanding fliers as they love to glide for miles without even a single flap. The speed at which they travel is 40 miles per hour (64 km/h).
  • They will roost high up in the dead trees sometimes alone while mostly in groups. Turkey vultures may very well stay on perch all day long particularly in rain.
  • When the day breaks, turkey vultures break away from their communal groups to forage alone.
  • They are known to nest in caves but they never go inside except for mating.
  • Predators of turkey vultures are great horned owls, golden eagles, bald eagles, and red-tailed hawks. Opossums, foxes and raccoons prey on turkey vulture’s eggs.
  • While turkey vultures are excellent in the air, they have a rather clumsy walk on land. It seems hard for an adult vulture to fly from the land because the bird needs a great deal of energy to push it off the ground.
  • They will make sounds such as hisses, whines and grunts.
turkey vulture facts
Turkey Vulture ©www.sfzoo.org

Feeding Ecology & Diet

  • Turkey vultures are dominant scavengers of North America as they primarily feed on animals dead or alive. They may like to eat carrion which is in the initial stages of decomposition.
  • They have fairly small beak and as such they prefer carrion which is already tore apart by other animals. The vulture’s bill is not powerful enough to penetrate the hard skin of carrion. However the hook of the bill is sharp enough to remove the flesh off the carcass.
  • While they rely on carcasses, turkey vultures also eat small mammals including mice. The turkey vulture’s diet also consists of seabirds and herons.
  • With its bare head and neck, the turkey vulture may probe deep into the carcass.
  • Turkey vultures also consume fruits, plant matter, coconut, pumpkin, and shoreline vegetation. They are often seen feeding on roadside kills mostly domestic dogs and cats. They have a varied as they also catch insects or fish in shallow water.
  • Unlike most other vultures, turkey vultures get to the food by the strong sense of smell. Thanks to the olfactory organs that allows the bird to smell carrion below the forest canopy.

Reproductive Biology

  • Turkey vultures typically nest on rocky cliffs but they also nest in bottomland hardwoods or forests. The nesting sites also include brush pile, rock crevice, cave, hollow tree, vine tangle, and in some old buildings.
  • The eastern population seems to have shifted their nesting sites from cavities to thickets.
  • In the southern United States, the breeding season occurs from May to April or June but the northern population breeds in August.
  • They begin to breed 1 – 2 years age with the breeding interval of 1 year.
  • The clutch size is 1 – 2 eggs but a female also lays up to 3 cream-colored eggs.
  • Both parents share the incubation.
  • Eggs hatch in about 4 – 6 weeks. Both parents feed the chicks for about 70 – 77 days.
  • When threatened, chicks may defend by hissing.
  • Young vultures fledge in about 63 – 70 days.
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