The Misunderstood Turkey Vulture

Turkey vulture

The most abundant vulture in the Americas, the Turkey Vulture is often misunderstood and even feared. But this bird is a friend of the earth, cleaning up carrion and ridding the ground of bacteria and decay.

 

Often seen soaring in open landscapes, Cathartes aura have a large wing span of 63-72 inches (160-183 cm). A gregarious species, the flocks (aka kettles) use air thermals to gain height, perspective, in their hunt for carrion.

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings

As scavengers, they feed almost exclusively on carrion. When not soaring, they fly closer to the ground, using their keen olfactory sense to detect the smell of gas (ethyl mercaptan) produced by a dead, decaying animal.

 

For many years they were mistakenly thought to spread disease; over-hunting of this bird caused its near extinction. The population has recovered admirably, due to the legal protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and similar protections in Canada and Mexico. Vultures in Africa are still misunderstood, and some species currently face steep decline.

Turkey vulture, adult

More turkey vulture (“TV” to birders) info at Wikipedia.  Range map below.

 

So they are misunderstood as carriers of disease, when in reality they are cleaning up the bacteria that can cause disease. Other misunderstood facts of the turkey vulture include:

  • Their name. They’re not buzzards. North Americans often call them buzzards, but that’s a mistake. In the Old World there are true Buzzards, in a different genus.
  • Their diet. They don’t eat live animals. I have a friend who was convinced that the turkey vultures soaring near his hilltop home were going to carry away his beloved lap dog. It’s possible he watched the flying monkey scene in “The Wizard of Oz” one too many times.
  • Their intention. If you see a group of them flying overhead, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is something dead they are circling. Sometimes they are just riding the thermals.
  • Their identification. Due to their population prevalence, you will usually see turkey vultures above you more than any other raptor. People often look up, see a turkey vulture, and think it’s a hawk or eagle. While turkey vultures have big wing spans and cruise quietly above, they are not at all related.

Turkey vulture nestling

 

There are two easy ways to know you’re looking at a turkey vulture. One is  their dark-brown-and-white feather pattern and featherless red head, as you see in the first photo. Other raptors have more nuanced patterns, and feathered heads that are not bright red.

 

Secondly, they are the only raptor to fly with their wings in a “V” shape; hawks and eagles fly with their wings flat across. This V-shaped flying causes the turkey vulture to teeter and rock in flight, which is identifiable from hundreds of feet away.

 

Their name Cathartes means “purifier.” What they eat and have the stomach acids to digest prevents other animals from consuming unhealthy decaying critters, making the earth a cleaner, safer place.

 

Next time you look up and see a big bird teetering in flight, salute this purifying super flyer.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

Turkey vulture, immature

Turkeyvulturerange.jpg

Cathartes aura range. Courtesy Wikipedia

 

 

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96 thoughts on “The Misunderstood Turkey Vulture

  1. My daughters think my spirit animal is a raptor, I notice them all the time and point them out. I distinguish vultures by the feathers at the end of their wings. Maybe I just have my head in the clouds. I do consider it a gift to see Bald Eagles

  2. Thanks for shining the light of truth on this commonly misunderstood bird. The turkey vulture and its close relative, the black vulture, perform uniquely vital duties for the landscapes of North America.

    • Hi Walt, I’m glad you enjoyed the turkey vulture post today. And you’re right, they offer vital duties for the American landscape. During the writing of the post yesterday, a pair cruised by window, that was fun. I hope you have a wonderful weekend on one of America’s beautiful landscapes.

    • Hi Helen, Yes, it is a shame that there are not wild vultures in the United Kingdom. I guess that makes the turkey vulture of the Americas even more special. I liked receiving your input, thanks so much.

  3. Pingback: The Misunderstood Turkey Vulture! | huggers.ca

  4. Another splendid post, Jet! A TV I wouldn’t mind binge watching when they’re riding the thermals, what a sight! Loved the wing drying photograph, and all the information demonstrating their importance to the planet. Majestic on the currents, perhaps a bit less so close up? Not as scary as those flying monkeys, though…
    Thanks for this, and have a wonderful weekend!

    • Such a pleasure to have you stop by for a TV visit, PC. Your words and ponderings gave me a warm smile, as always. Thanks so much, and my best to you and Mrs. PC for a great weekend.

    • This birder doesn’t hate it, because at least people are noticing them. I agree, Craig, the TVs are pretty amazing and I am glad they are now abundant. Thanks for stopping by, my friend — hope you have a great weekend.

  5. Thank you for giving this bird the respect and reverence it deserves! Thanks to the TV’s extraordinary sense of smell, it has also been attributed to detecting leaks in natural gas pipelines; mercaptan is added to this odorless gas and has the same molecular distinction as that of rotting flesh. We enjoy both the black and turkey vultures daily; the black vultures take advantage of the TV’s sense of smell, something they don’t have. When two bald eagles dropped a kill into our yard (great aerial battle!), they were unable to find it after … but TV was on it in no time.

    Have you read ‘The Thing With Feathers?’ by Noah Strycker? His chapter on vultures is positively hilarious. My best to you. 😀

    • Oh … and another thing. They are sensitive (like other raptors) to lead poisoning. When hunters use lead and field-dress (aka gut) their animal on-site, the vultures will consume this lickety-split — pellets and all. In Texas, lead shot is still illegal, but our current federal administration is wanting to reverse the national ban to politically satiate the gun lobby. So hunters: DON’T USE LEAD SHOT. It’s just the right thing to do.

    • Thanks for both your comments, Shannon, and good pointers on the TV. They are a big asset to our earth in so many ways. Re Noah Strycker, I followed his big birding year but have not read his new book yet, or “The Thing with Feathers.” I appreciate knowing his vulture chapter is a good one. Thanks so very much, and happy birding in 2018.

    • I agree, Ingrid, they are fascinating to watch. I like knowing where you first started enjoying them. Texas is so bird-rich. My thanks for your visit today, always a joy.

    • Glad to know you have found the TVs common, Bill, that is a good thing considering they nearly went extinct. Thank you for your visit and comment today, appreciated.

  6. There are turkey vultures near where my parents live in Arizona, so I’ve seen more than a few. I agree that they, along with other birds that eat carrion, deserve, if not love, at least respect and thanks. I once wrote a 100-word story about that, although I used “buzzard” instead of vulture. If you’re interested: https://sustainabilitea.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/sunday-stories-buzzards/. It’s from the bird’s point of view. 🙂 Would that be a bird’s eye view?

    janet

    • I was glad to read your short story, Janet, and your recognition to this carrion-eating bird, it was fun. My thanks for your visit and comment, and for sharing with me the joys of the turkey vulture.

  7. Thanks for the explanation for the TV’s teetering flight, not to mention the aid in identifying. I also vaguely remember reading (or viewiing?) something about someplace (India or Africa?) where carrion birds were being decimated when eating predators that had been poisoned. Turned out there was an increase in the number of rotting carcasses and disease. What a surprise! 😀 Wish I could remember things better!

    • You are right, Gunta, on the vulture population declines, they have occurred in both India and Africa, and Asia too. Poisoning is a big problem, as it was with DDT poisoning of the turkey vultures in earlier years in the U.S. The problems currently stem, as they are starting to find, from drugs that are administered to the animals, and then the vultures are consuming the poisoned carcasses, and dying. Other imbalances result, as you rightly point out, in more carcasses and disease, to name just a few. Hopefully things will get turned around before it we lose the populations, it happened with success to the turkey vulture. Always a treat to have you stop by, my friend.

    • I know how often you are out walking and photographing in the parks, Amy. And I’m glad to know you are sighting the turkey vultures. Always a pleasure to hear from you, my friend–

  8. The TV are strong birds and very beneficial to our environment, most vultures are too.
    I read and saw a documentary on television years ago about the use of poisonous insecticides for the agriculture in Africa, which contaminated the rivers during the rain season the poison was then in the water and the animal killed by the floods were deposited in large quantities at the end of the rains, these dead animals were soaked in poison. The vultures are the ones that dispose of these carrion. Being killed themselves by the poison. It was a whole chain of events. Where the piles of dead animals all over were not taking care of the “clean-up”. Scientist found the problem and the solution pressed by the lack of vultures. They are key for the balance in the African environment!
    I loved you post because you reassure the importance of these species. Thank you my friend. 🙂

    • You are spot-on, HJ, when you say the vultures are the key for balance in the African environment. The decline of the vulture population in Africa is especially noticeable because there are so many large mammals and if they don’t get cleaned up, it is disastrous for all earth inhabitants. The wildebeest migration generates a lot of large mammals of all kinds, and their carcasses are serious polluters. We are lucky in this country that the TV populations recovered, and I hope for this success on other continents too. Always a great joy to hear from you, and to hear what you’ve learned. My thanks.

  9. I have only ever seen these birds in a French zoo where they were demonstrating their skills of flying. Not the most attractive of birds but clearly very important to the balance of the environment. I am curious about why they fly with their wings in a “V” shape if it makes then teeter as you describe. It doesn’t seem logical but I guess there must be a good reason, as there is for all things in nature.

    • I appreciate that even though you have never seen this bird and it does not live in your country, you still have an interest in their flying. I can tell you are a curious person, Alastair, by the interesting finds you share on your blog. The turkey vultures fly with their wings in a “V” formation, producing a slight dihedral angle, because it stabilizes their flight in turbulence. This week while I was working on the composition of this post, I was more attentive to turkey vultures than usual. I saw a TV flying at a time of day when it was getting dark and a storm was coming in, and I thought, that’s unusual. But now I realize it is because they fly with the dihedral angle, and this aids in the turbulent times. So thanks for asking that question, my friend. Great, as always, to hear from you.

  10. Every turkey vulture are clapping their wings at being vindicated. I had no idea they were the cleaners rather than the killers. Always learning over here Jet. Thank you and again best wishes for the year ahead.

    • And how delighted I am, Sue, to know the turkey vultures are clapping their wings for me. hahaha. Now if they could only read and would buy my book, lol. I am happy to see I have helped you to see their beneficial presence on our planet. And I am wishing you both a joyful adventure in Thailand and Japan. My thanks and best wishes.

  11. What a coincidence. Our little bird study group just did a study on vultures. We read “Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird” by Katie Fallon.
    Monday I am doing a report on “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World.” By Peter Wohlleben.

  12. I love to hear about your bird study group, Sherry. I think it is so great that you get together and learn and study more about birds. It is an endless topic that you could spend your whole life on (as you and I both have) and still have so much more to learn. Have fun and stay warm, it sounds like a brutal winter for you right now.

  13. I have many photos of them flying in the distance, but I have never been able to capture a good close-up or seen one that has landed. Of course, last week when I was driving there were several circling in the air and one decided to dive low and straight down the road toward the car. Wonderful information and I loved the photo of them drying their wings!

    • I like when they swoop down low because you can see how big this bird is. I liked hearing about your TV experiences, ACI. I was thrilled for Athena when she captured the close-up. He was quite hidden in tall grass, but she was able to “see through” the grass. Always a joy to have you stop by, thanks so much.

    • So delightful, David, to hear from you. Or if we’re doing regal names, perhaps I should call you Sir David. 😉 Have a wonderful week, my friend, and thank you for stopping by.

  14. Great info, as always, Jet. Interesting that they don’t eat live creatures, I didn’t realize that (and LOL about the flying monkeys). Beautiful photos too…thanks so much!

    • Thanks so very much, BS, yes how nice for us that they are equipped and hungry for the dead animals. Glad you liked the little quip about the flying monkeys, especially since my first viewing of WoO and the scary monkey scene was with you, dear sister.

  15. Thank you for this very informative post, Jet. I agree with you. These birds are often misunderstood and feared. Right now I am watching one soar high above the salt marsh. They have loved the winds and the unusually cold air of this past week here in FL.

    • I loved hearing that as you enjoyed the TV post, one was soaring over your beloved salt marsh, Helen. Such an incredible bird. Thank you for stopping by, always a pleasure.

    • Enjoyed your comment and visit, Andrea, thank you. I liked that their name means purification, too; and you’re right, it does speak of the cycle of life. I also like hearing your experience of them in the UK. They are a fascinating bird, and unfortunately they have a bad reputation in the U.S. for a number of reasons, as mentioned in the post. I was happy to see, in the course of the comments here from followers and their familiarity with them, that there are people who do have respect for this beneficial and important bird. Have a good week, my friend — hope you’re staying warm!

  16. Great photos and descriptions give this very common creature of the ‘wild’ it’s rightful place in the animal
    kingdom. We see plenty of them around here just ‘hanging out’ for reasons still unknown. They seem to group together in the pines and on the ground next door and gather peacefully. Then they are gone.
    Have a most peaceful and exciting new year Jet. Eddie

    • Oh how I love hearing about your turkey vultures in Florida, Eddie. Thanks for your warm words and contribution to the turkey vulture adventure. Many smiles headed your way, and wishes for a delightful new year.

  17. Jet…do we have them here in the desert?? I know I saw something the other day …truly could have been the other month :)….anyway, I saw a very large bird flying around that looked like the picture…just wondering…thanks!

  18. Jet, I’m very in favour of TUVUs getting a good press. They do a terrific job, one that no other bird does on the same scale. Thanks for supporting them (and for suppressing some of their less endearing traits!) RH

  19. You always help me confront my erroneous biases, Jet. The next time I see a TV, I will be grateful for their contribution to the environment…instead of just saying “eewwww.” Mahalo.

    • I think if you look up every time you are outside, Russel, you will probably see a turkey vulture in a day or two. They especially like the open spaces, so other than tall highrise areas, you should have some luck. Have fun, and thanks for stopping by.

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