These misunderstood scavengers are often met with a mix of curiosity and unease. Despite their less-than-stellar reputation, turkey vultures play a crucial role in our ecosystem. In this post, we’ll delve into the fascinating world of turkey vultures, exploring their unique characteristics and the essential part they play in nature’s cleanup crew. Get ready to see turkey vultures in a whole new light!
What is a Turkey Vulture?
The turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) is a large bird of prey that is found throughout much of North America. As its name suggests, it resembles a turkey in profile, with a small bald red head, dark plumage, and a fan-shaped tail. Turkey vultures are scavengers that play an important role in the ecosystem by cleaning up carrion. They have excellent senses of smell and eyesight which help them locate carcasses. Turkey vultures are social birds that roost and feed communally. They soar gracefully on thermals in the sky and use their keen senses to find food. Learning to identify turkey vultures is an important bird watching skill.
Physical Characteristics of Turkey Vultures
Turkey vultures have several key physical features that aid in identification:
- Dark brown or black plumage overall, except for gray flight feathers under the wings
- Bright red, featherless head that looks small compared to the body
- Ivory-colored, hooked beak
- Pinkish legs and feet
- Brown eyes
- Wrinkled skin on the head and neck
- Broad, long wings with a wingspan around 6 feet
Their dark coloration contrasts with their bare red head. Turkey vultures lack a voice box so they do not sing or call like other bird species. Their only vocalization is a hissing sound when threatened.
Identifying Turkey Vultures
Size and Shape
Turkey vultures are one of the largest flying birds in North America. Their wingspan reaches up to 6 feet across, making them noticeably larger than hawks. They are smaller than eagles however. Turkey vultures have a stouter, stockier build compared to other raptors. They have broad, long wings and short, fanned tails. Their wings are held in a slight V-shape when soaring.
Comparison to Other Raptors
When trying to identify a turkey vulture in flight, compare its size and proportions to other raptors. Is it smaller and more slender like a hawk? Or is it very large and heavy bodied like an eagle? Turkey vultures fall in the middle – larger than hawks but smaller than eagles.
Relative Size Measurements
More specifically, turkey vultures measure 24-32 inches long with wingspans between 63-72 inches across on average. They weigh 1.8 to 5.3 pounds. Immature turkey vultures may be on the smaller end of these ranges. Using size comparisons like crows or geese can help judge the size of an unknown bird.
Appearance from a Distance
When viewed from a distance, turkey vultures appear as mostly dark, blackish birds gliding high overhead. You may be able to see the paler underside of their wings as they angle them. Their small heads can be difficult to discern unless seen up close.
Dark Brown Plumage with Red Head and Pale Bill
In closer views, turkey vultures are identified by their dark brown or black body plumage contrasting with bright red heads. Their heads look small compared to their bulky bodies. Their bills are pale ivory or white. The skin on their heads and necks looks wrinkled and warty. You can check the video and audio of turkey vultures in this page.
Behavior and Habits of Turkey Vultures
Soaring and Flight Patterns
Turkey vultures spend much of their time soaring high in the sky without flapping, riding thermals and currents. They teeter more in flight than many raptors, their wings wobbling as they ride the air. Turkey vultures often soar together in groups, sometimes in synchronized patterns.
Feeding Habits as Scavengers
Turkey vultures use their keen sense of smell to locate carcasses to feed on, whether they are rotting animals along the roadside or other dead wildlife. They do not kill live prey but are nature’s clean-up crew, feeding on decaying carrion. At carcasses, turkey vultures often appear hunched over as they gorge themselves on the meat. They play an important role in ecosystems by disposing of dead animal remains.
Sense of Smell for Finding Carcasses
Turkey vultures have a highly developed sense of smell, unlike most other birds. They can detect ethyl mercaptan, a gas emitted by decaying bodies, from great distances away. Their heightened olfactory abilities allow them to find food hidden under forest canopies. Turkey vultures frequently arrive first at carcasses and are then followed by black vultures and other scavengers lacking a strong sense of smell.
Distinguishing Male and Female Turkey Vultures
Lack of Sexual Dimorphism
There is very little sexual dimorphism, or physical difference, between male and female turkey vultures. Both sexes have identical plumage and coloration. Males and females are similar in size, with females sometimes slightly larger on average.
Physical Appearance and Plumage
The only reliable way to distinguish male and female turkey vultures is by examination of their reproductive organs, as their external appearance is nearly identical. Females may appear slightly more brownish while males tend to be blacker. However, subtle plumage variations are not a foolproof indicator of sex.
Tips for Spotting Turkey Vultures
1. Looking for Specific Flight Patterns
When trying to spot a turkey vulture, look for large soaring birds that hold their v-shaped wings in an upward angle as they circle. Turkey vultures often teeter and wobble more in flight than other raptors.
2. Noticing Wing Positioning
Watch for the lighter underside of the wings to become visible when the turkey vulture banks or turns. This silver coloring contrasts against the otherwise dark wings. Their wings are angled slightly upward in flight.
3. Observing Circles and Thermals
Scan the sky for large birds circling upwards on thermals, a sign of possible turkey vultures gaining altitude. Look for unsteady, teetering movements compared to the steadier flight of hawks and eagles. With practice, their flight style becomes more recognizable.
Final Thoughts on Turkey Vulture Identification
Identifying turkey vultures involves recognizing their large size, dark plumage, small red heads, and distinctive flight patterns. Their v-shaped, uplifted wings, wobbly soaring, and circling on thermals are useful identification clues. With practice, you as a bird watchers can easily spot the turkey vulture’s unique flight style from a distance. Observing their scavenging habits provides more insight into these fascinating birds. You can check another bird guide in here : Bird Species identification