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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
    2
    AnAge
  • 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.

Contributors

Tanya Dewey (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

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

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends.

biodegradation

helps break down and decompose dead plants and/or animals

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

chaparral

mid-altitude coastal areas with mild, rainy winters and long, dry summers. Dominant plant types are dense, evergreen shrubs.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that generate their own body heat through metabolic processes.

estuarine

an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and the fresh and saltwater mixes

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scavenger

an animal that mainly eats dead animals

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland
savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland
tundra

A terrestrial biome found in very cold places -- either close to polar regions or high on mountains. Part of the soil stays frozen all year. Few kinds of plants grow here, and these are low mats or shrubs not trees. The growing season is short.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

2001. Vultures. Gale Encyclopedia of Science. Thomson Gale.

Buckley, N. 1996. Food finding and the influence of information, local enhancement, and commercial roosting on foraging success of North American vultures. The Auk, 113.n2: 473-489.

Buckley, N. 1998. Interspecific competition between vultures for preferred roost positions. Wilson Bulletin, 110.n1: 122-126.

DeVault, T., B. Reinhart, L. Brisbin, O. Rhodes. 2004. Home ranges of sympatric Black and Turkey Vultures in South Carolina.. The Condor, 106.3: 706-710.

Estrella, R. 1994. Group size and flight altitude of Turkey Vultures in two habitats in Mexico.. Wilson Bulletin, 106.n4: 749-752.

Fergus, C. 2003. Wildlife of Virginia and Maryland. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Fowler, M., T. Schulz, A. Ardans, B. Reynolds, D. Behymer. 1990. Chlamydiosis in Captive Raptors. Avian Diseases, 34(3): 657-662.

Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Field Guides.

Kelly, N., D. Sparks, T. DeVault, O. Rhodes. 2007. Diet of Black and Turkey vultures in a forested landscape.. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 119:2: 267-271.

Lowney, M. 1999. Damage by black and turkey vultures in Virginia, 1990-1996. Wildlife Society Bullein: Vol. 2, 27(3): 715-719.

Mandel, J., K. Bildstein. 2007. Turkey Vultures use anthropogenic thermals to extend their daily activity period.. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 119.1: 102-106.

Milanich, J. 1997. Archaeology of Northern Florida, A.D. 200-900 : The McKeithen Weeden Island Culture. Florida: Gainesville University Press.

Palmer, R. 1988. Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 4. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Rabenold, P. 1986. Family Associations in Communally Roosting Black Vultures. The Auk, 103(1): 32-41.

Rodríguez-Estrella, R., J. Donázar, F. Hiraldo. 1995. Yellow-Footed Gulls Attack Turkey Vultures on Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California, Mexico. Colonial Waterbirds, 18(1): 100-101.

Seamans, T. 2004. Response of roosting turkey vultures to a vulture effigy. The Ohio Journal of Science, 104.5: 136-139.

Stevenson, H., B. Anderson. 1994. Birdlife of Florida. Florida: Gainesville University Press.

Wallace, M. 2004. New World vultures. Pp. 275-285 in M Hutchins, D Thoney, M McDade, eds. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia, Vol. 8, 2 Edition. Detroit: Gale.

Wilson, N., G. Oliver, Jr.. 1978. Noteworthy Records of Two Ectoparasites (Cimididae and Hippoboscidae) from the Turkey Vulture in Texas. The Southwestern Naturalist, 23(2): 305-307.

 
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Farmer, A. 2008. "Cathartes aura" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 18, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Cathartes_aura/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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