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turkey vulture

Cathartes aura

What do they look like?

Turkey vultures vary from 0.85 to 2 kg and can have a total length between 64 and 81 cm. Sexes do not differ, all have a brownish black plumage with a bare head and neck. The skin color on their head and neck can vary from pink to bright red. Turkey vultures are commonly mistaken for black vultures <<Coragyps atratus>>. However, black vultures have grey primary and secondary feathers and black heads and necks. Turkey vultures have long, broad wings that help them to soar for long times and not use too much energy in flapping flight.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    0.85 to 2.00 kg
    1.87 to 4.41 lb
  • Range length
    64 to 81 cm
    25.20 to 31.89 in
  • Range wingspan
    170 to 183 cm
    66.93 to 72.05 in

Where do they live?

Turkey vultures range as far north as the southern border of Canada and as far south as the southernmost part of South America. Over the past few decades, they have been expanding their range northward.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Turkey vultures occupy a wide variety of habitats. They are found in forested as well as open environments. Turkey vultures can be found anywhere they can find their carrion food supply.

How do they reproduce?

Turkey vultures gather on the ground and begin hopping around in a circle with wings partially spread in order to attract mates. Males and females often mate for life or at least for many years, and often stay together throughout the year.

Turkey vultures breed from March to June in North America. Nests are lined with debris and are found in hollow trees or logs, crevices in cliffs, or in old buildings. Eggs are off-white and marked with brown and lavender. Young turkey vultures hatch in 30 to 40 days and then take another 9 to 10 weeks to learn how to fly. They are are independent about a week later.

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Turkey vultures breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from March to June in North America.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 3
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    30 to 40 days
  • Range fledging age
    70 to 80 days
  • Range time to independence
    80 to 90 days

Turkey vulture chicks are helpless at hatching. Both parents regurgitate food for their young several times a day until they are 70 to 80 days old, when they learn to fly.

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

There is not much known about how long turkey vultures live, although one wild turkey vulture lived more than 16 years.

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    17 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    10 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    202 months
    Bird Banding Laboratory

How do they behave?

Turkey vultures mainly live in groups. Populations that live in cold areas migrate to warmer areas during the winter. They are especially common, and form larger groups, in areas where there are lots of warm air currents that help them to soar without effort.

Home Range

Turkey vultures move around a lot in order to find food.

How do they communicate with each other?

Like most vultures, turkey vultures have simple calls, such as grunts, hisses, and barking sounds, used mainly to deter predators. They use their vision also to communicate with other turkey vultures. Turkey vultures have a well-developed sense of smell and are one of the only species of birds worldwide that uses smell. They use their keen sense of smell and their vision to locate carcasses. Black vultures take advantage of this, following turkey vultures to carcasses and then excluding them.

What do they eat?

Turkey vultures eat mainly carrion, they are scavengers. Very rarely turkey vultures will kill and eat small animals, such as insects, lizards, or bird nestlings. Near humans they rely heavily on roadkill or dead domesticated animals. In areas with fewer humans they eat wild carrion.

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • reptiles
  • carrion
  • insects
  • Other Foods
  • dung

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Most turkey vultures die as a result of being hit by cars, flying into power lines or other structures, or getting caught in fences or leg-hold traps. Eggs and chicks are sometimes eaten by nest predators such as raccoons. Large owls prey on young and adult birds. Turkey vultures escape a lot of predation by being large birds. They also tend to spend a lot of time soaring in the air, where no predators can reach them. When harassed they will regurgitate their stomach contents of rotten meat, which is usually enough to deter predators because of its putrid smell.

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Turkey vultures are scavengers. They are important in ecosystems because they eat dead animals; they are part of natural recycling of nutrients in ecosystems.

Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host

Do they cause problems?

Sometimes turkey vultures are blamed for the same bad behaviors as their cousins, black vultures. Black vultures will kill newborn cows, goats, or sheep, and cats or small dogs. Turkey vultures eat mainly carrion and almost never kill anything larger than a mouse. People out to kill black vultures will also kill turkey vultures because they roost together or because they confuse them with black vultures.

How do they interact with us?

Turkey vultures are important as scavengers. They remove dead carcasses, which can pose a health risk to humans and livestock.

Are they endangered?

Turkey vultures are a common species throughout their range. The IUCN lists them as a species of Least Concern.


Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Adam Farmer (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor, instructor), Radford University.


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University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Farmer, A. 2008. "Cathartes aura" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 19, 2024 at

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