The turkey vulture is most noticeable due to their red head which is bare of any feathers. This is useful as when feeding on carrion (deceased animals) bits of blood and flesh would get stuck in feathers. The vulture would not be able to clean its own head to remove this.
At the tip of the head is a hooked, pale colored beak. They have strong legs which are bare of feathers and colored pink or another dark color.
Their body is covered with black feathers with some on the back being browner. On the under wing the flight feathers are gray.
An average turkey vulture will measure 64-81cm (25-32in) long and weigh 0.85-2kg (1.75-4.5lbs). Their wingspan is 170-178cm (66.9-70.1in) across.
Turkey vultures are carnivorous. Most of their diet is made up of carrion (deceased animals). A major food source with the expansion of travel by vehicles has been roadkill. This has led to a population expansion in areas with high rates of road kill.
They will visit human rubbish dumps where they can scavenge for food which has been thrown away.
These birds will also hunt for live insects and fish. In addition to this they will prey upon weak or sick animals.
They are able to locate food using their keen sense of smell. This ability is not held by many other birds and as such they are often followed by other birds who use them to find food. As a result they may be found at a carcass with other vultures and carnivorous birds.
Wild 20 years
Record 33 years
— AD —
Turkey vultures can be found across North, Central and South America. Here they range throughout Argentina, Bahamas, Belize, Bermuda, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Cayman Islands, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Falkland Island, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, U.S. Aruba, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela and the Virgin Islands.
They are the most widespread of the seven new world vulture species.
Northern populations of the turkey vulture are migratory. Prior to summer they will move to the southern areas of their range where they can enjoy warmer weather. At these times flocks of thousands of turkey vultures may be seen flying overhead.
They make their home in a wide variety of habitats including forests, shrubland, grassland and desert. Turkey vultures will also visit marshes and coastlines to hunt for fish.
At night they roost in a tree or forested area.
Nesting occurs from March to June. At this time a ritualized mating behavior occurs. This involves a pair hopping in a circle with their wings outstretched and flying close to one another.
Once they form a pair they will find a spot to nest on a cliff ledge, hollow tree, in caves or a dense thicket. Where they share their habitat with humans they may nest in an old building. Little nest building occurs instead the eggs are deposited on the ground.
One or two eggs are laid though three may occur on a rare occasion. These are white with brown blotches. Both parents will work to incubate these eggs for 30-41 days.
Chicks hatch with white fluffy down feathers and a grey head in contrast to the red head of an adult. This red head develops around 1 year old.
After hatching a parent will remain with the chicks at all times. The other parent will go out to feed. Upon their return to the nest they will regurgitate food for their chicks.
Chicks remain in the nest for 9-10 weeks at which point they take their first flight. While in the nest they defend themselves by hissing at would be attackers.
The chicks remain with their family for a few months after leaving the nest.
Sexual maturity takes place between 3 and 4 years old.
They fly with their wings slightly raised forming a ‘V’ pattern with their body. The wings are slotted helping to reduce turbulence.
Their day is spent flying on heat thermals and low to the ground where they can find food.
Turkey vultures will soar in small groups and they roost or migrate in large groups.
To cool themselves they will urinate on their legs. This urine also has a high uric acid content and as such kills bacteria on their legs which may have been gathered while stepping on their prey.
Their vocalizations are limited to hisses and grunts due to the lack of a vocal organ.
Predators and Threats
They have few natural predators.
Humans led to a decline the turkey vulture population across the 20th century as a result of exposure to the fertilizer DDT. They are also poisoned by consuming tainted meat and shot with lead bullets.
Over their existence they have been persecuted due to being considered a nuisance or carriers of disease.
In the US vultures will often be referred to as ‘buzzards.’
A group of vultures is known as a ‘venue’ when resting and a ‘kettle’ when in flight.
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