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A Guide to Mastering of Turkey Vulture Identification

Turkey vulture in full flight with wings open

Have you ever looked up and seen a giant bird circling lazily in the sky? It might be a turkey vulture, and chances are, you have mixed feelings about them. They’re kind of cool with their massive wings, but, well, they eat dead things.

But hold on! Before you write them off as creepy scavengers, there’s more to the story. Turkey vultures are actually rockstars in the ecosystem, playing a vital role in keeping things clean and healthy.

In this post, we’ll take a deep dive into the fascinating world of turkey vultures. We’ll uncover their superpowers (yes, they have some!), discover how they help the environment, and maybe even change your mind about these often misunderstood birds. Get ready to see turkey vultures in a whole new light – they’re not just nature’s janitors, they’re essential for a healthy planet!

What is a Turkey Vulture?

Closeup of 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 Vulture with spread wings overhead

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.

Color Pattern

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 Vulture feeding on dead cow

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.

You can learn more about turkey vulture location in here :
1. Turkey Vulture in Illinois
2. Turkey Vulture in Texas
3. Turkey Vulture in Wisconsin
4. Turkey Vulture Missouri
5. Turkey Vulture Arizona
6. Turkey Vulture Maryland
7. Turkey Vulture in Michigan
8. Turkey Vulture Virginia Habitats
9. Turkey Vulture Colorado
10. Turkey Vulture Georgia
11. Turkey Vulture Maine

You can learn more about turkey vulture comparison to other birds here :
1. Turkey Vulture vs Condor
2. Turkey Vulture vs Hawk


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


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