Turkey Vultures: Masters of the Skies and Scavengers of the Land

Look for Turkey Vultures as they cruise open areas including mixed farmland, forest, and rangeland. They are particularly noticeable along roadsides and at landfills. At night, they roost in trees, on rocks, and other high secluded spots. Back to top.

Turkey Vultures eat carrion, which they find largely by their excellent sense of smell. Mostly they eat mammals but are not above snacking on reptiles, other birds, amphibians, fish, and even invertebrates. They prefer freshly dead animals, but they frequently have to wait for their meal to soften before they can pierce the skin. They are expert foragers who begin with the softest parts and have even been seen to throw away the dead skunks’ scent glands. Luckily, vultures appear to have very robust immune systems, as evidenced by their contented consumption of carcasses without contracting botulism, anthrax, salmonella, or cholera. Unlike their Black Vulture relatives, Turkey Vultures almost never attack living prey. Back to top.

Turkey Vultures nest in hollow logs, mammal burrows, thickets, caves, ledges, abandoned hawk or heron nests, and abandoned buildings. These nest sites are typically isolated from human traffic and disturbance, with temperatures at least 13°F lower than their surroundings. While they often feed near humans, Turkey Vultures prefer to nest far away from civilization.

Turkey Vultures don’t build full nests. They could clear the way, make a hole in the ground or scatter leaves, or arrange bits of vegetation or decaying wood. Once found, many of these nest sites may be used repeatedly for a decade or more.

Turkey vultures are recognized for their languid, faltering flight patterns, which probably contribute to their capacity to soar at low altitudes, where they can more successfully locate carrion with their noses. At other times they may soar high on thermals and form mixed flocks or kettles. On the ground they move with ungainly hops and are less agile than Black Vultures. Often standing tall, especially in the morning, they spread their wings to catch the sun’s rays, which may help them dry off, warm up, or cool down. Outside of the breeding season, Turkey Vultures form roosts of dozens to a hundred individuals. During courtship, pairs of Turkey Vultures perform a “follow flight” display, in which one bird leads the other through about a minute of circling, flapping, and twisting flights. This display can last up to three hours. Migrating flocks can number in the thousands. Turkey Vultures may gather in groups around carcasses, but typically only one of them feeds at a time, driving the others away and making them wait for their turn. Although Turkey Vultures are large predators, they are often chased away by smaller species such as Crested Caracaras, Zone-tailed Hawks, and Black Vultures. Back to top.

Turkey Vultures increased in number across North America approximately 1. 8% per year from 1966 to 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight projects that there are 28 million breeding individuals worldwide. With a score of five out of twenty, this population is classified as having low conservation concern according to the Continental Concern Score. These birds were once endangered by the side effects of DDT, but they have since recovered to become some of the most common large carnivorous birds in North America. But because they eat decaying flesh, they are vulnerable to toxins or lead from dead animals, just like California condors. The main concern is lead shot that ends up in carcasses or gut piles left by hunters. The animals eat the shot and eventually suffer lead poisoning. Other threats include trapping and killing due to erroneous fears that they spread disease. Far from it, vultures actually reduce the spread of disease.

Kirk, David A. and Michael J. Mossman. (1998). Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura), version 2. 0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Sauer, J. R. , D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr. , K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2. 07. 2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Do Turkey Vultures Mate for Life?

Yes, Turkey Vultures are generally considered to be monogamous birds, meaning they typically form pair bonds that last for at least one breeding season, and often for multiple years or even their entire lives. These strong bonds are crucial for their successful breeding and raising of young.

The Courtship Dance of the Turkey Vulture

The Turkey Vulture’s courtship ritual is a fascinating display of aerial acrobatics and synchronized movements. It begins with a gathering of several birds on the ground, where they hop in a circle with their wings partially spread, creating a mesmerizing spectacle. This initial stage serves to attract potential mates and showcase their fitness and readiness for breeding.

Taking to the Skies: The “Follow Flight” Display

Once a pair has formed, the courtship intensifies with the “follow flight” display. In this aerial ballet, one bird, typically the male, leads the other through a series of intricate maneuvers They soar and dive, twist and turn, their wings beating in unison, creating a breathtaking display of aerial artistry This synchronized flight serves to strengthen their bond and solidify their partnership.

Building a Nest: A Collaborative Effort

Turkey Vultures are not known for building elaborate nests. Instead, they opt for simple nesting sites, often choosing rock crevices, caves, ledges, or even abandoned structures. Both partners participate in preparing the nest, scraping out a shallow depression in the soil or clearing away any obstacles. This collaborative effort ensures a safe and comfortable environment for their future offspring.

Raising a Family: A Shared Responsibility

Usually, the female turkey vulture lays two eggs, which are then incubated for about 30 to 40 days by each parent. Because of this shared accountability, both parents can support the upbringing and development of their children. When the chicks hatch, both parents work hard to provide for and care for them until the time comes for them to fledge and set out on their own adventures.

A Vital Role in the Ecosystem

Turkey Vultures play a crucial role in maintaining the health of the ecosystem. As scavengers, they consume carrion, preventing the spread of disease and keeping the environment clean. Their keen sense of smell allows them to locate carcasses from great distances, ensuring the efficient removal of decaying organic matter.

The Turkey Vulture’s strong pair bonds and collaborative parenting strategies highlight their remarkable resilience and adaptability. Their dedication to their young and their vital role in the ecosystem make them a fascinating and essential part of the natural world. As we learn more about these magnificent birds, we gain a deeper appreciation for their complex social behaviors and their significant contributions to the delicate balance of life on Earth.

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Are turkey vultures monogamous?

Turkey Vultures also nest in the abandoned stick nests of birds, in mammal burrows, and in abandoned buildings. The species is monogamous, and evidence suggests that pairs remain together until one member dies.

Are turkey vultures friendly?

Tame turkey vultures recognize their human caretakers, and show affection to the ones they like. For turkey vultures, nibbling at the socks of their keepers is a favorite game.

What time of year do turkey vultures mate?

Breeding: The breeding season of the turkey vulture starts in March, peaks in April to May, and continues into June. The courtship rituals involve several individuals gathering in a circle, where they perform hopping movements around the perimeter of the circle with wings partially spread.

What are some fun facts about turkey vultures?

Turkey vultures have an extraordinary sense of smell. They have been known to be able to smell carrion from over a mile away, which is very unique in the bird world. The turkey vulture has the largest olfactory (smelling) system of all birds.

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