All about Turkey Vultures

Scientific Name: Cathartes aura. Their Latin name translates to “Cleansing Air”, referring to the turkey vulture’s ability to keep our ecosystems free of disease.

Description: Turkey vultures have iridescent brown feathers with a gray shading on each feather’s underside. These vultures can weigh between 1.2 and 2.4 kilograms. They have a wingspan of up to 6 feet! Adults’ legs and face are red and bare, with only a few short, hair-like feathers on top of their head. Juvenile vultures have a gray face and legs until they reach maturity at about one year old. The lack of feathers on their face and legs help to keep them clean from debris. Unlike other birds of prey, Turkey Vultures have a single, large nostril and an excellent sense of smell. They rely on their sense of smell to find their food. The large, open nostril means any food remnants will not get lodged within the vulture’s nose and affect their ability to locate food.

Behavior: While most birds of prey are solitary creatures, Turkey Vultures actually prefer to live in groups. These social flocks have strong hierarchies and can have up to 80 vultures! Groups of vultures have multiple different names. When flying together, they are called a kettle. When roosting or perching in trees, they are referred to as a committee and when eating together, a wake. Media often depicts vultures as cruel animals, circling around and waiting for the sick or weak to die. Instead, vultures circling overhead is a way for them to find scents in the air and signal other vultures when food has been found. The vultures will then take turns eating what has been found. They have also often been seen sharing food items with other birds and interacting with these other species socially as well. Vultures mate for life, which can be 30-40 years! They do not build nests; instead they find spaces like rock crevices, mammal burrows, hollow logs, abandoned nests, and abandoned buildings to raise their young. Mated pairs raise 1-3 eggs and the nestlings fledge around 84 days after hatching. 

Diet: Vultures eat carrion, or deceased animals. They will eat just about any carcass they come across and will even eat rotting or diseased meat. Their strong stomach acid destroys the diseases before they can infect the vulture. This process also means that other animals will not become infected as well- any carcass eaten by a vulture will not be consumed by another animal that could be susceptible to those diseases. Turkey Vultures have very rarely been seen pursuing live prey.

Conservation: Turkey Vultures are listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. While they do not often face issues with disease and are easily able to adapt to a variety of habitats, they still face threats. Since the vultures eat primarily carrion, they tend to fall victim to poisons- both rodent and lead. Rodenticides remain active even after killing their intended targets, leading to the poisoning of any vulture that consumes the toxic prey. Eating animals shot with lead bullets means they may ingest the bullet. Once the lead bullet is introduced to the stomach acid, it begins to degrade and contaminate the vulture. Lead poisoning continues to build up in the system unless otherwise treated. Vultures will also eat roadkill, leading them to be victims of car collisions. Adult vultures feed small bone pieces to their young as a source of calcium. Unfortunately, they will often mistake pieces of hard, white plastic for bone. The lack of calcium added to the chemicals in the degrading plastic bits can lead to Metabolic Bone Disease in vultures. This disease leaves the vulture with very weak bones, prone to bending and breaking easily.

How you can help: Turning away from lead bullets and other lead-based products can help prevent vultures from unintentionally ingesting lead. Using rodenticide alternatives, such as natural deterrents or electric traps, can reduce the amount of poison being introduced to the environment. Lastly, cleaning up trash and recycling will help to lessen the probability of these birds eating plastic or other non-food items.

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