Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: Turkey Vulture

This week’s featured bird is one that never gets enough attention or admiration, but the turkey vulture deserves all our kudos, praise and more. How much do you know about these amazing raptors?

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture – Photo by Bob Peterson

Name: Turkey Vulture
Scientific Name: Cathartes aura
Scientific Family: Cathartidae (New World Vultures)

Habitat: These large, ungainly raptors prefer open areas such as agricultural fields, meadows and plains habitats, as well as more artificial open areas such as roadsides, construction areas and landfills. They avoid heavily forested regions and marshy areas, but otherwise might be spotted anywhere food is abundant, including in suburban areas or even soaring over urban centers.

Range: Turkey vultures are abundant and widespread throughout South America, Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico and the southern United States year-round. During the summer breeding season, they extend even further north and will reach portions of southern Canada as well.

These birds are easily recognized by their allover dark chocolate-brown plumage and bare red-pink heads. The ivory or whitish bill also contrasts well with the head. The legs and feet are grayish-white, and in flight, turkey vultures show a pied coloration with the dark forewings and body contrasting with the whitish-gray plumage on the trialing edge of the wings. The wings may show buffy edging on the feathers, and the neck and body coloration can be slightly darker than the wings.

Vultures don’t get the appreciation they deserve as nature’s clean-up crew, and turkey vultures certainly do their part to keep our environment tidy as they feast on roadkill, carrion and carcasses as well as other assorted trash. But no fear, their stomach acid is far stronger than most other animals, so any toxic bacteria they consume pose no threat to the birds. Between meals, they often perch on trees, poles or other towers and may sun themselves with their wings spread. In flight, they hold their wings in a V-shape and wobble or teeter in circles as they soar on thermals searching for their next meal with their superior sense of smell.

These birds are magnificent to see in large flocks, and soaring kettles of turkey vultures are common to see not only during migration, but also at any time when the birds may be gathering at a good food source or leaving a popular roost. At first it may be easy to confuse them with an eagle or other, more actively hunting bird of prey, but once you learn to recognize them, you’ll be able to note turkey vulture characteristics with ease.

I’m fortunate that I live in a place where these birds are prominent year-round, and I often get to observe their antics. Despite their menacing appearance and gruesome reputation, they are rather sweet birds and perform valuable services to us all. The next time you’re enjoying fresh air and a wonderful nature walk, thank a turkey vulture!

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