Turkey Vulture

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Photos by: Camp Crazy Photography

Species: Turkey Vulture

Scientific name:Cathartes aura

Status: common, migratory

Description: These aren’t the pretties looking birds in most people’s opinion. Turkey vultures are large dark birds, with broad wings that have finger like wingtips, and long tails. In flight, turkey vultures hold their wings in a “V” position. The undersides of their wings are dark by the face, then a grey/silver closer to the edge/wingtips). Turkey vulture bodies are a dark brown, although they tend to appear blacker. Their most distinguishing feature is their naked red heads and their pale beaks. They also have featherless redish brown coloured feet. Turkey vultures in flight rarely flap their wings, what you will see instead, is they sore in circles. These birds use thermals (warm air drafts) to move in the sky.

Habitat: Turkey vultures are common sight in open areas, soaring over farmland, forests and human settlements. Most often you will find them along roadsides or at landfills looking for food. At night, they will roost (a place where a winged animal will rest) in trees, rocks or other high spots (out of predators reach). Turkey vultures are a migratory bird, when the temperatures get too cold, they migrate south, but will return in the spring to spend their summers here.

Breeding: Turkey vulture breeding season starts in March, but lasts through to June. These birds do not build nests, but will clean a spot in soil, moving all obstacles, and arrange vegetation to their liking. Turkey vultures may use the same nesting site for years. Nests can be typically found in rock crevices, caves, and ledges, burrows of mammals, hollow logs, fallen trees, other abandoned raptor nests and abandoned buildings. Nesting sites tend to be in cooler areas, and away from human traffic or other disturbances. A female will lay a clutch of 1-3 eggs, usually two though. Both female and male turkey vultures will incubate the eggs. Baby turkey vultures will hatch 30-40 days after the eggs were laid. At birth, these birds are blind, covered in downy (soft, fluffy) feathers and depend on their parents for food. Mom and dad will bring food to the nest, regurgitate (throw it up) it so the babies can eat. Young turkey vultures will not leave the nest for 2-3 months.

Diet: Turkey vultures are the cleaners of the world. They are scavengers meaning they will eat carrion (dead animals) and will not kill live prey. Turkey vultures love to eat mammals, but will also eat reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. Turkey vultures have a keen sense of smell, and can smell the gasses produced during the decaying (breaking down) process. Turkey vultures prefer freshly dead food, and will eat the softest bits first. These birds have incredible immune systems; they can eat carrion without getting botulism, anthrax, cholera, salmonella and even rabies. You may find several turkey vultures gathered around carrion, but only a single vulture will feed at a time.

Threats to species: Turkey vulture numbers are increase. Similar to other bird species, they were negatively affected by pesticide use in the early 1980s, but since the ban of DDT, their numbers have increase. Threats to this species are due to the type of food they eat. Eating carrion means they may be poisoned (if their food is poisoned), or may get lead poisoning if they eat the bullets their prey was shot with. Unfortunately, these birds may also be hit by cars due to feeding on carrion on roadways, as well as people have trapped and killed them because they feared they would spread disease, although this is 100% false, and vultures actual reduce the spread of disease.

Threat to humans: The biggest threat to humans is they poop, A LOT. Turkey vultures are no threat to your pets, unless they are dead, or your family, again unless they are dead.

Fun facts:

If the carrion is too dry, turkey vultures will salivate to help moisten their meal.

A turkey vultures talon is just the right size to pick food pieces out of their nostrils.

Turkey vultures can detect the gases released during decomposition in a few parts per trillion.

Turkey vultures will often stand with their wings fully spread open. They do this to dry their wings, warm their bodies up and use the sun to bake bacteria off of their wings.

Turkey vultures will defecate (go to the bathroom) on their legs. They do this to cool themselves down, as well as stop fleas, and ticks that may be on their food from coming onto them.

When a turkey vulture is threatened, it will regurgitate its food, so that it will be light enough to fly, and the vomit should distract whatever is bothering them long enough so they can get away.


The Cornell lab of Ornithology: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/turkey_vulture/id

Canadian raptor conservancy: http://canadianraptorconservancy.com/index.php?page=turkey-vulture




6 Responses to Turkey Vulture

  1. Scott says:

    Are their nesting sites protected by any laws or regulations from development and/or human encroachment ?

    • Sarrah says:

      Hi Scott,
      Turkey vultures are protected under the fish and Wildlife conservation act. As with other human expansion projects, I would assume mitigation of nesting sites etc would need to be taken to offset any harm to the species. For example artificial nest sites could be made if you had to destroy natural nesting sites.
      I hope this answers your question.

  2. Scott says:

    Hi Sarrah;
    Thank you for the reply.
    Does the Act provide specific details with respect to protection of Turkey Vulture nesting sites ?
    I ask as a housing development is being planned near my residence and such will most likely destroy a large number of Turkey Vulture nesting sites, a Green Heron nesting site and numerous other species.

    • Sarrah says:

      Sorry for the delayed response. Unfortunately there is not much you can do. Turkey vultures aren’t endangered so protection is pretty slack. However, before building environmental assessments are always done and mitigating suggestions are made. You could always contact the builder with your concerns as well. Best of luck

  3. Richard says:

    typo ~ prettiest?
    Saw my first T.V. of the season, today March 29, 2015. Ramara Township, Simcoe County.

  4. Pingback: Exploring Ontario: Lanark County to Hastings County | The Boardmans and Browns of Winnipeg, A Canadian Story…

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