Turkey Vulture - Field Marks

The largest known concentration of Turkey Vultures during migration in the United States and Canada occurs during the last week in September and the first week in October near Weldon, California. During the Kern Valley Vulture Festival between 1,000 and 4,000 Turkey Vultures are sighted daily.

Turkey Vulture
Cathartes aura

A familiar sight in the sky over much of North America is the dark, long-winged form of the Turkey Vulture, soaring high over the landscape. This efficient scavenger plays an important role in nature's cleanup crew, quickly disposing of the carcasses of dead animals. Most birds are believed to have a very poor sense of smell, but the Turkey Vulture is an exception, apparently able to find carrion by odor.

Turkey Vulture - Immature
Field Marks
Nearly eagle-sized (spread 6 feet). Overhead, note the great two-toned blackish wings (flight feathers paler). Soars with wings in a dihedral (a shallow V); rocks and tilts unsteadily. At close range the small naked red head of the adult is evident; immature birds have blackish heads.

26-32" (65-80 cm)

Similar Species
See (1) Zone-tailed Hawk, which "mimics" the Turkey Vulture; (2) the Black Vulture; and (3) eagles, which have larger heads, shorter tails, and soar in a flat plane.

Southern Canada to Cape Horn. Migratory in North.

Turkey Vulture - Range Map

Present year-round in much of southern United States, but northern birds migrate long distances, some reaching South America. Migrates in flocks, and may travel long distances without feeding.

Widespread over open country, woods, deserts, foothills. Most common over open or semi-open country, especially within a few miles of rocky or wooded areas providing secure nesting sites. Generally avoids densely forested regions. Unlike Black Vulture, regularly forages over small offshore islands.

Diet: Mostly carrion. Feeds mainly on dead animals, preferring those recently dead (that is, relatively fresh carrion). Occasionally feeds on decaying vegetable matter, live insects, or live fish in drying-up ponds.

Turkey Vulture Soaring Behavior: Seeks carrion by soaring over open or partly wooded country, watching the ground and the actions of other scavengers. Can also locate some carrion by odor: unlike most birds, has a well-developed sense of smell.

As a part of pair formation, several birds gather in circle on ground and perform ritualized hopping movements around perimeter of circle with wings partly spread. In the air, one bird may closely follow another, the two birds flapping and diving.

Nest: Sites are in sheltered areas, such as inside hollow trees or logs, in crevices in cliffs, under rocks, in caves, inside dense thickets, or in old buildings. Little or no nest built; eggs laid on debris or on flat bottom of nest site.

Eggs: 2, sometimes 1, rarely 3. Whitish, blotched with brown and lavender. Incubation is by both parents, usually 34-41 days.

Young: One parent remains with young much of time at first. Both parents feed young, by regurgitation. If young are approached in nest, they defend themselves by hissing and regurgitating. Age of young at first flight about 9-10 weeks.

Thought to have declined during 20th century in parts of North America, but current populations are apparently stable.

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